Pub. Date: May 23, 2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe. Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention. Her children were born out of wedlock by different men. On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances. She was the epitome of a bohemian. (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo). I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries. However, Gray did not. The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death. In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.
When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read. Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration. I confess I was often confused. Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream. And I believe that was her goal. I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style. Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp. It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it. (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora). However, Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity. I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.
In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist. There were also observers written in the third person. (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing). You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes. Still, Gray does manage to pull it off. One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance. Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded. Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality. She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination. We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children. In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity. Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child. Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident. To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist. Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs. These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I. Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale. The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish. Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime. As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding. But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.