AFTER EGYPT: Isadora Duncan and Mary Cassatt by Millicent Dillon

AFTER EGYPT: Isadora Duncan and Mary Cassatt

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In 1910 and 1911, two American expatriates, Mary Cassatt and Isadora Duncan, each traveled to Egypt. This impressionistic ""dual biography,"" where ""fact is not discarded, but is called upon for effect,"" considers the lives of the painter and the dancer (who never met) as refracted through their last 15 years, the years ""after Egypt."" A novelist (The One in the Back is Medea, 1973) and biographer (A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, 1981), Dillon hooks the reader with short, charged chapters that alternate between her two subjects so that each story reads like a serial: Mary, 66, in Egypt with her sick brother, writing that she is ""crushed by the strength of this art."" Then, Isadora, 32, in Egypt with her lover Paris Singer, writing that ""as the dahabeah voyages slowly up the Nile the soul travels back a thousand-two thousand-five thousand years."" Later, Mary raging against a curator she thinks betrayed her. Then, Isadora denouncing ""narrow-minded, hypocritical"" America as she leaves it. Inevitably, Duncan upstages Cassatt. The melodrama of ""the child of Isis"" reaches its tragic climax in the accidental death of her children, and continues in a self-destructive spending of passion, money, and talent, often colorfully told in passages from her own and other people's memoirs. Cassatt, the counterpoint, spends a solitary, chauffeur-driven, blind and bitter old age in Paris, and reveals herself primarily through circumspect letters to a friend. Dillon laces together these two lives with reverberating themes of death, motion, and Egypt--and with overwrought prose (""She is in history, she is out of history, she is in time, she is out of time""). The book's innovative narrative ends up drawing fragmentary portraits, particularly of Cassatt. A bold idea for retelling of the lives, then, but unevenly realized.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
Publisher: Dutton