When a novel opens with the death of children, grief is—by necessity—a primary theme. One expects this kind of loss to lead to potent emotions, major questioning and intense actions, all of which are justifiable and sacrosanct. Who would dare judge the actions and emotions of a mourning parent?
But when the mother is an eccentric, temperamental celebrity, even her grief seems to become a public spectacle, both observable and open to criticism.
Amelia Gray’s new historical novel, “Isadora,” follows Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, in the year after the tragic drowning of her two children.
Gray will be reading from the book, along with Catherine Lacey, author of “The Answers,” at Women and Children First Thursday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m.
“Isadora” is split between four points of view: the larger-than-life dancer herself; her wealthy eccentric lover Paris, father of one of her children and heir to the Singer sewing machine company; her envious sister Elizabeth, who runs the dance school founded in Isadora’s name; and Elizabeth’s aloof and inept lover, Max. All four come across as self-important and unsympathetic, and yet Gray’s lush prose and vivid scenes manage to sell them as also romantic, creative and fascinating characters.
Following the funeral, Elizabeth and her brother Gus accompany their sister to Greece on an extended holiday while Paris Singer stays in France to manage their affairs and Max runs the dance school in Germany. As we move from country to country following the inner thoughts and motivations of the four characters, I searched for signs of grief to excuse their odd and occasionally cruel behaviors.
Elizabeth and Max seem unaffected by the children’s deaths, and I found myself easily disliking them, but, in there was deep and moving evidence of mourning. Paris learns that guilt is “a sturdy emotion” and takes comfort imagining his son in Heaven: a place he’d never given much thought to before.
“I taught them to listen to the pulsing point under their ribs, to unfurl from it like a banner, taught them to run and leap, to make themselves into columns so perfect they might stand forever. … I taught them all of that, but I never taught them how to swim.”
Their role as grieving parents could not be separated from their positions of power and their legacies. And so, I found myself comparing grief and genius: two seemingly unrelated topics, but both of which often grant an individual similar leeway. A person is allowed to be difficult when they are either grieving or exceptionally talented.
In the end, then, what fascinated me most about “Isadora” was my own fixation with trying to find the relatable and the virtuous in the extreme: power, beauty, and loss.