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A Fantastic Dance
Peter S. Beagle isn't a prolific writer -- in 40 years, he has produced only six novels and a handful of short stories -- but his fiction is almost always elegant, memorable, and moving. His latest creation, which follows hard on the heels of his World Fantasy Award-nominated Tamsin, is A Dance for Emilia, a flawlessly sustained fable about love, art, the afterlife, and the difficult but necessary process of letting go.
Three very different figures dominate the narrative. The first is the narrator, Jacob Holtz, a moderately successful actor who never quite made it to the top. The second is his childhood friend, Sam Kagan, a frustrated dancer forced to settle for the secondhand life of a critic. The third member of this unusual triangle is Emily (Emilia) Rossi, the successful young journalist who falls in love with Sam.
The story begins when Jacob, returning home from an evening performance at Pacific Repertory, receives the news that Sam has died of a previously undisclosed heart ailment. On the long flight home from California to Brooklyn, Jacob reviews his long-standing relationship with Sam and attempts to come to terms with the stark reality of his death. At the funeral, Jacob encounters Emily, and the two establish a common bond that has unexpected consequences. Somehow -- through letters, through phone calls, and through the cumulative force of their combined memories -- Jacob and Emily invoke Sam's spirit. To everyone's amazement, including his own, Sam returns, inhabiting the body of his aging cat, Millamant, a body that affords him a final, posthumous opportunity to dance.
As Jacob tells us, "Nothing in life -- nothing even in Shakespeare -- prepares you for the experience of opening a can of Whiskas with Bits O'Beef for your closest friend, who's been dead for two years." Beagle's account of Sam's brief return -- which, as everyone eventually realizes, violates the natural order of things -- is funny, rueful, and poignant, and miraculously avoids the pitfalls of banality and cheap, easy sentiment. As always, Beagle writes about love, loss, and human longing with intelligence, wit, and understated lyricism. Like Sam/Millamant's triumphant final dance, his prose is animated by an "ardent restraint" that moves the story gracefully along to its satisfying, open-ended conclusion. Like the best of Beagle's earlier work (The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place), A Dance for Emilia is the real, unadulterated thing, the clear product of one of the most original, deeply humane fantasists of the post-Tolkien era.