Most readers have probably heard of Marie Curie, the Polish and naturalized-French scientist whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity and the isolation of radioactive isotopes led to her becoming not only the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person and the only woman to win it twice in two different fields: Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.
Most readers have probably not heard of Loie Fuller, the American performer whose pioneering work in modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques — particularly with her popular "Serpentine Dance," a swirl of silk skirts and rainbow-colored spotlights at Paris's Folies Bergères — centered her in the Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements.
In her imaginative and immersive dual biography "Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light," Minneapolis writer Liz Heinecke explores the unexpected friendship that arises between these two iconic women when Fuller — already known as the Electric Fairy for both her performances and her technical genius — approaches the Curies with a "very interesting idea to make glowing clothes from radium salts."
A uniquely eccentric figure even in the crowded field of Belle Époque Paris, "rather than depending on choreography or exposed flesh," the 5-foot-2 Fuller "incorporated technology into her art to make it new and modern." Ceaselessly pursuing her beautiful stage illusions through luminescence, Fuller also sought patents for her inventions, for "it was Loie's mind, rather than her face or body, that made her shine brighter than the other dancers in Paris."
A science educator also known as the Kitchen Pantry Scientist, Heinecke has made it her mission to "show the world that anyone can be a scientist and kids from 3 to 93 can have fun playing with science at home." That spirit of joy illuminates "Radiant."
Heinecke employs all the methods of creative nonfiction to construct a true account that reads as fluidly as a novel, complete with invented dialogue "inspired by extensive research, letters, personal memoirs, and biographies." Her evocation of Paris feels lush and lively, as when she writes of the theater where Fuller performed that, "Bejeweled golden statuettes of horses and women stood silent guard over the alcohol-fueled scene, where waltzes and polkas mingled with conversation and laughter. Usherettes in bonnets adorned with fluttering pink ribbons handed out advertisement-stuffed programs." Or of Curie's laboratory that, "Even outside, the work produced horrible vapors that filled the courtyard and drifted into the indoor workspace. They'd open the windows in the shed year-round to keep the air moving and lessen the fumes, which blew dust around."
With cameos by Thomas Edison, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Auguste Rodin and Albert Einstein to name a few, "Radiant" reads like a who's who of the early 20th century. Through her affectionate depiction of these women and their milieu, Heinecke allows their spirits "to keep shining on with a faint but steady light, inspiring us to dream bigger, work harder and reach higher"; skillfully, seamlessly, she lets their friendship and feminism blaze again in the 21st.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
By: Liz Heinecke.
Publisher: Grand Central, 336 pages, $28.