Isadora: A Novel, by Amelia Gray

Ninety years after her death it may be hard to imagine the phenomenal influence Isadora Duncan had, not just on American but on European culture. Born in 1877, she stormed the dance world at an early age. She discarded traditional ballet clothing for tunics and togas, put away ballet slippers for bare feet, and rejected the formalism of ballet for what she called “natural movement”.

In addition to revolutionizing women’s clothing (cinched waists gave way to straight frocks and flapper dresses much through her influence) she changed the perception of dance (check the ladies’ dance society in The Music Man). She also stretched the boundaries of women’s roles in art and sexuality. Though she faced tragedies there was never any doubt that Isadora steered her own ship. At the time of her death in 1927 she was the most famous woman in the world.

Amelia Grey has done a phenomenal job of capturing the spirit of Isadora Duncan, moving the narrative through letters, inner dialogues, and witness in a kind of extended prose poem of a novel.

The central period covered is fairly brief. It begins with the tragic death of her two children, drowned with their governess after the car they sat in ran off a bridge into a river. It ends with the death of another child at birth. Between those two events the book explores life as a mother, artist, sister, and daughter as well as grief, artistic vision, and life in the public eye.

The book peers into Isadora’s life with Paris Singer, wealthy son of Isaac Singer of the Singer sewing machine, Isadora’s life as a teacher of young dancers (Elsa Lanchester of Bride of Frankenstein fame was one of them and described the experience during an interview on Dick Cavett’s talk show), her relationship with the mother who introduced her to dance, and the odd people with whom she surrounded herself.

Throughout Isadora stands as an intensely independent woman dealing with tragic loss while trying to live out her artistic vision. At times she seems brazen and egotistical, at others she seems vulnerable as she tries to deal with overwhelming grief. Still, because of her outsized personality and her ability to manipulate people to get what she wants, the reader is sometimes left wondering whether her grief is all that deep or part of the drama of her life. This is cleared up at the end but it shows the honesty of the portrait that the reader is able to see her with such depth and still wonder if she could be completely known.

The book would almost be worthwhile just for the prose, but the depth of the book will be bringing me back to it again to get as much out of it as I can.