After satirizing privileged WASPs in her prize-winning first novel (Seating Arrangements, 2012), Shipstead investigates another rarefied world: ballet.
When we meet Joan in September 1977, she’s tired of her going-nowhere career in the ballet corps of a prestigious New York company, where she’s primarily known as the discarded lover of star performer Arslan Rusakov. She’s also pregnant after a summer visit to Chicago to seduce her high school pal Jacob. The rest of Part I depicts their tense marriage—scarred by Joan’s bereavement over leaving ballet—from son Harry’s infancy through the mid-1980s. This strong setup is anchored by Shipstead’s sensitive portrait of the couple’s uneasy relationship and their complex friendship with Southern California neighbors Sandy and Gary Wheelock, whose daughter Chloe is Harry’s age. It’s a jolt when Part II jumps back to 1973 in Paris, where Joan is transported by Arslan’s dancing and “wants some piece of the fearsome beauty he has onstage.” We already know she helped him defect from the Soviet Union, so it feels unnecessary to get a detailed account of it and of the subsequent unraveling of their affair in New York, partly because autocratic artistic director Mr. K judges (correctly) that she’s not good enough to dance with him. It takes a while for Part III to regain the lost momentum as Chloe and Harry study ballet, he becomes obsessed with his mother’s connection to Arslan, and it becomes clear that Harry is a major talent. Anyone who hasn’t figured out who Harry’s real father is long before the flashback that jarringly opens Part IV simply hasn’t been paying attention. Shipstead again recovers in excellent final chapters that allow Chloe to emerge from Harry’s shadow, put Harry and Arslan onstage together, and offer tentative hope for Joan and Jacob’s battered marriage. But the denouements provided for the novel’s many well-drawn characters would be more satisfying if readers hadn’t been distracted by flashbacks that serve no compelling artistic purpose.
Perceptive and well-written though marred by its peculiar chronology.