New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 386 pages. $27.00.
Long before the term “It Girl” was coined in the early twentieth century, there’s been a cultural fascination with popular, sexually attractive, and often wealthy socialites who attain the status of celebrity. In modern American culture, It Girls are perhaps best embodied by the Kardashians or the Hadids, though other celebrities of the moment certainly fit the definition. Relentless public attention to these women inherently leads to a detailed record of their social lives. We know where they dine, what they wear, who they date, and with whom they feud, all while gaining insight into the emotional exhaustion caused by constantly being in the spotlight.
In other words, the extensive detailing of It Girls’ lives makes it easy enough to create a historical account, but only on the surface level. Amelia Gray’s novel Isadora, which chronicles a brief period of the life of American dancer and It Girl Isadora Duncan, goes beyond this shallow analysis of celebrity and instead considers the emotional state of Isadora and the people surrounding her in the wake of great tragedy.
Gray’s novel begins with a horrible accident—a car left in gear drives Isadora Duncan’s two children, Deirdre and Patrick, into the Seine, where they drown. Patrick is the illegitimate child of Paris Singer, a sewing machine magnate and one of the world’s richest men, who has left his family in Florida and taken up with Isadora across Europe. The funeral becomes a public spectacle, an opportunity for socialites and artists to cling to the hospitality of the mourning parents, which soon prompts Isadora to flee to Corfu. In the following months, Isadora’s health and the future of her school of dance come into question.
In tight, character-driven vignettes, Gray adroitly constructs an emotional and social aura of the early twentieth century, particularly of the upper class. For example:
Isadora seemed to appreciate the jagged strips of half-torn wallpaper, speaking brightly of the bohemian aspect and going on about her early days in Europe, though later, when she couldn’t find a proper punch bowl, she sank into a malaise that required three days and a trip to Printemps to cure.
These short snapshots rotate between Isadora, Paris, Isadora’s sister, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s lover, Max. However, Isadora’s vignettes are the only passages to utilize first-person narration, which allows Gray to evoke Isadora’s overwhelming grief. For historical fiction, this artistic decision offers remarkable interiority and highlights the complex lifestyle of Isadora’s title character. Isadora is not merely defined by her actions, nor is she pigeonholed as an artist or celebrity or mother.
Indeed, while Isadora’s public grieving is gleaned through the perspectives of other characters with a tabloid-esque superficiality, Gray inhabits her directly to create a more intense emotional response. For instance, Isadora opines:
I always thought that if I suffered enough in service of Art, if I laid down my life to please the world, I could live in peace. Now I know that the world will consume everything in its path. Art is not even an appetizer to the horrors of the world. The world consumes horror itself and savors it and is never sated.
This feeling of doom and gloom is transposed from the author to Isadora, but is done so in a way that brings more life to her character than relaying rumors found in biographies. That is to say history is not used as a crutch, and Gray’s search for emotional truth supersedes certain physical details of place and time.
Paris’s vignettes, on the other hand, maintain a more emotionally distant juxtaposition. Told in close third person, these passages reveal a contemplative, productivity-driven type of sorrow. Contrasting Isadora’s vacant lugubriousness, Paris reacts to loss by diving into the many financial and social arrangements that must be made. His mourning is thus buried behind the expectations of his manhood and upper class status:
Isadora gave him the balance he needed to focus on the things that most interested him. He found he actually enjoyed keeping up the family home at Oldway, its garden paths and halls, the feathered joints of its cornices and its wide stone floors. He liked catching himself in its broad and sparkling mirrors, seeing a man always between tasks.
Throughout these various points of view, Gray’s writing is fluid and expertly coiled. Certain nostalgia presents itself in the prose, but there are still modern flourishes that make the writing pop on a sentence level. Intentional sentence fragments and comma splices abound, creating a contemporary, lyrical rhythm.
Her brother, Patrick, fresh as cut grass. Buttered baby in a high seat, soles of his kicking feet soft as a calf’s new cheek. Flour-skinned in curls, knowing without lesson the whole of love in golden waves.
Together, the precise writing and brief windows spent with each character rev up the pacing and make Isadora a fast and entertaining read. Gray brings Isadora Duncan to life by capturing neither the spirit of the troubled artist nor the salacious celebrity, but instead a woman coping with tremendous loss in the unblinking gaze of the public eye.