Amelia Gray’s ‘Isadora’ is a heavenly celebration of women in charge of their bodies

“I have built my life around the feeling of being tipped forward on my toes,” says the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, in the early pages of this biographical novel. At the moment of this reflection, she’s trapped with the bodies of her two children in a room at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, after they drowned in a car that fell into the Seine.

“Isadora” begins with an ending — these true drowning deaths — and plays out as a moment of poise, the feeling of being tipped forward on your toes for almost 400 pages as Isadora teeters on the brink of her sanity and the world teeters on the brink of World War 1. In both the world at large and the world of Isadora Duncan, this was a tense, dense, fertile period, humming with notions about strength, the female body, sovereignty, genius, power, invention and belief. This is a novel about all these things, and also a great novel of character: the story of a real woman’s real grief and survival.

Duncan, of course, really was a character. Born in San Francisco in 1878 (at least, that was one story: her posthumously discovered birth certificate said 1877), she spent her adult life in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, the parts she was and meant, in her own words, “to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the Dance.” There was always some chattering about whether she was quite the genius she believed herself to be. “Isadora is a fascinating dancer, to be certain. But the greatest? In terms of technical skill or invention?” one character asks. To some extent, genius is always a matter of belief, one’s own and others, and if you were a strong-willed woman in the early 20th century, your ambition was as likely to meet scorn as belief. People pored over Duncan’s private life: her children’s deaths, her affairs, her bisexuality, her drinking. She died at age 49 or 50, her glory days well behind her, when her scarf got tangled in the wheel of a car.Amelia Gray’s prose is ideally suited to writing this particular life. As seen in her previous novel, “Threats,” and, particularly, her last short story collection, “Gutshot,” her writing has a carnivorous intensity: The story “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” was a highlight of “Gutshot.”

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