I USED TO BE obsessed with Isadora Duncan.
My editor didn’t know this when she assigned me Amelia Gray’s new novel, Isadora: she didn’t know that I’ve dressed up as Isadora at costume parties; that in college, where I was studying poetry and movement, I had a journal whose cover I had collaged with pictures of Isadora, whose insides I had filled with quotes from Isadora; she didn’t know I had written “I love you, Isadora!” next to said quotes. She didn’t know I had (poorly) attempted short fiction about Isadora many years ago — a picture book manuscript from the perspective of a girl who danced at Isadora’s school in Russia, and a short piece of erotica in which a rehearsal for Isadora’s dance troupe in a Greek ruin devolves into an orgy.
Needless to say, I approached Gray’s novel with a mix of great excitement and trepidation (what would she do with my beloved Isadora?), not to mention a tinge of jealousy (why hadn’t I written this novel?!).
It turns out this novel is less about Isadora as the mother of modern dance and more about Isadora as a grieving mother. The novel takes place just after her two children drown in a car with their nanny and chauffeur in 1913. It is told from four perspectives: Isadora; her lover and father of her late son, Paris Singer (heir to the sewing machine fortune); her sister, Elizabeth, who runs a school based on Isadora’s methods in Germany; and her sister’s lover, the insufferable Max. All of them can be quite insufferable. In fact, I hadn’t realized Isadora was such a selfish jerk when I threw so much energy into worshipping her, but Gray makes them and their suffering tremendously compelling and allows each of them moments of great sympathy.
This is not the first time Gray has explored grief in her fiction — her novel Threats is centered on a man mourning his wife, and many of her short stories address loss head on. In “Monument,” a story from her collection Gutshot, townspeople cleaning gravestones end up destroying the gravestones in what seems to be a cathartic protest against death; in “A Contest” from the same collection, the gods hold a contest to return a departed loved one to the mortal who feels the most grief. One man holds a parade for his dead mother, replete with “floats representing her spinach casserole and childhood home” while a lost child’s bedroom “was filled with candy until the window broke, spilling wrapped butterscotch and strawberry suckers into the street.”
The mourners in Isadora aren’t competing against one another — although there is a long-simmering competition between Isadora and her sister, Elizabeth (at least from Elizabeth’s perspective) — but their individual approaches to grief are just as quirky as the mourners’ in “A Contest.” Isadora eats her children’s ashes and sends letters to Teddy, the father of her late daughter, in which she envisions productions that transform her grief into art — such as a staging of Hecuba, where she imagines the crowd becoming so overcome at the death of Hecuba’s children that they rush the stage wailing en masse, and carry the actress away. Paris becomes obsessed with a large, highly populated painting, homing in on the visage of Napoléon Charles, who had also died young; he imagines Napoléon Charles will become a sort of death mentor to his boy in the afterlife. Elizabeth finds comfort in gruesome news stories; she imagines one woman’s experience as she reads about a train wreck: “The worst of it is not the shock or pain, but the simple realization that her entire world could be flung from its axis, that she could find herself stunned into a new state of being.” Max, who is not as touched by the deaths of the children, simply becomes more and more insufferable. It is quite satisfying when Isadora tells him: “Take your place in the anal tendon of artistic merit, you disease. You don’t have a bit of philosophy you didn’t scrape off the shoes of greater men, and there is no greater man than me.”
As she shares each character’s journey of grief, Gray gives some stunning moments of insight, such as:
Weddings bothered Elizabeth, the false finality troubled her, the optimism of death parting a pair who would more likely be destroyed by boredom. Funerals, on the other hand, were always a strange comfort. At least they delivered on the eternity they advertised.
She also offers powerful moments where grief disrupts language:
It’s fine it’s fine, our ticking clock insists, it’s fine, says steady heart and mind made for finer things than daily life; it’s fine, in the smaller parts declare, it’s fine, rays screaming from the open breast; it’s fine, the water a slab; it’s fine, it’s fine, a bird in the cage worth three in the car, it’s fine my dear, it’s fine!
A few of the lines in the book feel as if they could be embroidered on pillows or posted as social media memes — “Change required courage, and courage, it seemed, required change”; “We forget the cobwebs in the chandeliers until they disturb the light”; “why trouble yourself with tomorrow when today is troubling enough?”; “the more they know to dread, the less they have to fear” — but the bulk of Gray’s language is fresh and forceful and full of surprise. She brings Isadora’s world to lush, vibrant life with passages such as this:
A piece of marrow was roasted in its bone and brought to the table with a great offertory feeling, the charred thing sizzling on its plate. It smelled so rich and savory, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. The marrow seemed too vital, a fundamental pudding. I watched the others spread it on thick slabs of bread. I should have spooned my portion up, blessing the beef for the chance to savor its primordial fat, licking it clean and gnawing the bone, absorbing every bit of its power to store it for this very moment.
One of the most powerful moments in the book comes when she imagines her children returning to her in this gorgeous, moving scene:
I feel them as surely as my own weight on the bed. Patrick comes close and holds my face in his hands as Deirdre climbs onto me, pressing into my belly as if she could absorb herself into me. They talk, but I can’t understand them, they speak rapid and backwards. They smell of river stone. The bed is heavy with all the food I had ever fed them: toast and potatoes and strawberries, roast meat, chocolates and cheese and boiled eggs. My own warm milk soaks through the quilt and weighs us down.
Around us, a murmuring in the well of darkness. I don’t dare look around the room. They loosen my tunic straps and expose my breast. Pawing at me, they nuzzle like pups, their impossibly cold cheeks warming against me. They nurse in blessed silence while I stare past the ceiling, through the rafters and roof, until I find myself floating as thin as air above it, daring not to breathe, not to lose them again.
There is one aspect of Isadora’s life that doesn’t come through as vividly as I had hoped in this novel — her dance. We get a lovely sense of her connection to movement through sentences like: “Our book of natural movement has been buried so deep within us that its pages have become general, merging ten into one, those first perfect movements fading into the story of our first words,” but the actual power of her dance doesn’t quite live on the page. We see Elizabeth “gripping both sides of her seat so hard that her fingernails were ripping diamond-shaped holes into the armrests” during one of Isadora’s performances, but the reader — at least this reader — doesn’t feel gripped the same way. In all my obsession with Isadora’s own writings when I was younger, I could never quite visualize her dancing, not as clearly as I had desired — she was more of a philosophical mother to me than a direct influence on my own dancing. I thought perhaps fiction could bring Isadora’s dance to life in a way that her own words could not; I wanted to feel as if I was bearing witness to Isadora in all her glory on stage, but in the scenes where she does perform, I remained unmoved. Gray does a beautiful job of fleshing out Isadora as a woman throughout the novel, and capturing the high, dramatic pitch of her life, but somehow Duncan’s revolutionary artistry doesn’t quite translate to the page.
Gray’s does, however. She brings her characteristic wit and observation and sense of the absurd to this novel. As with her other books, it is divided into fragments — each chapter almost a work of flash fiction or prose poem unto itself — but it is the most deeply sustained of her books to date, the most epic and ambitious. It is a brutal novel in many ways, completely unrelenting in its depiction of pain, yet that makes it exhilarating, too. Gray is a fearless writer, a writer willing to look into the most profound darkness and find strange, compelling music there. I started out reading this book wishing I had written it; I finished it deeply grateful Gray had.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns. Forthcoming this year is a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.