A Dance for Emilia

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"Sam and Jacob had been best friends for what seemed like forever. As teenagers, they shared a passion for the performing arts and an understanding of what it takes to make dreams come true. As adults, they pursued demanding careers on opposite coasts - Sam wrote for a Manhattan arts magazine; Jacob worked as an actor in California - but remained closer than ever." "But when Sam died unexpectedly, Jacob had to learn how to live without the support of his closest confidant. Devastated and terribly lonely, he befriended the remarkable woman who was ...
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"Sam and Jacob had been best friends for what seemed like forever. As teenagers, they shared a passion for the performing arts and an understanding of what it takes to make dreams come true. As adults, they pursued demanding careers on opposite coasts - Sam wrote for a Manhattan arts magazine; Jacob worked as an actor in California - but remained closer than ever." "But when Sam died unexpectedly, Jacob had to learn how to live without the support of his closest confidant. Devastated and terribly lonely, he befriended the remarkable woman who was the last love of Sam's life - and who inherited Sam's Abyssinian cat, Millamant. And much to their surprise, their grief proved strong enough to bring Sam back to them - in Millamant's body."--BOOK JACKET.
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Editorial Reviews

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Our Review
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.

--Bill Sheehan

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Beagle's newest (after Tasmin, 1999) is a charming reflection on dreams and the afterlife set in modern-day Manhattan. Unambitious actor Jake Holtz, who narrates, is introduced to the profound as the spirit of his best friend, dancer Sam Kagan, possesses the body of his female Abyssinian cat, Millamant, two years after Sam's death. Sam stuns his former lover, Emilia Rossi, and Jake by practicing leaps and pirouettes that were once impossible for his less flexible human body. Switching fluidly from past to present, Beagle charts Jake's friendship with Sam, from childhood on, in concise yet lyric prose. This book is brief, but it presents a wealth of impressive ruminations on love, longing and the power of the bonds between people. From its opening pages, a sullenly beautiful mood permeates the narrative and lingers throughout Jake's sobering reflections and witty dialogue. Despite his inclusion of the ethereal, Beagle successfully illuminates: "Not facts, but the accuracy under and around and beyond facts. Not a recital of events not even honesty--but truth." (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Sam and Jake had been best friends for years, ever since high school. They kept in touch even after Jake moved to California to pursue his acting career and after Sam finally gave up his dream of becoming a dancer to write for a Manhattan arts magazine. When Sam dies unexpectedly, Jake goes back East for the funeral. There he meets Emilia, the young woman who was Sam's last love and who wound up taking care of Sam's Abyssinian cat, Millamant. Over the next two years, Sam and Emilia correspond, sharing loving memories and missing Sam together. Their shared longing brings Sam back, speaking and moving through Millamant. At last Sam can dance as he never could when he was alive—effortlessly, achingly, and beautifully. Beagle has the happy ability to bring his characters to life, no matter how improbable the situation. He makes readers care for these characters and root for the happy ending that they deserve. This fantasy supposedly was written as his way to cope with the loss of a friend. It is about loving, grieving, and letting go. It is very brief—a long short story or a short novella that will interest a broad audience. Any reader contemplating the role of humanity in the universe, the meaning of friendship, and what part of humankind lives on (if anything) after death will respond to this imaginative take on these questions. VOYA CODES: 5Q 3P J S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 2000, Roc, 96p. Ages 14 to Adult. Reviewer: Diane Yates VOYA, February 2001 (Vol. 23, No.6)
From The Critics
The loss of a mutual friend enables two very different individuals to join in shared grief - a process which brings the friend's spirit back to life in the form of his beloved cat. They discover they are holding his spirit captive on Earth - but how can they let it go? A simple, warm story of grief and recovery.
Kirkus Reviews
Brief catandghost yarn from the author of Tamsin (1999), etc. When wannabe dancer and successful writer Sam Kagan dies suddenly of a heart attack, his lifelong friend, smalltime actor Jake Holtz, is devastated. At the funeral Jake meets Emilia Rossi, Sam's significant other; Emilia, as disbelieving as Jake, is keeping Sam's arthritic old cat, Millamant. Jake and Emilia compulsively exchange reminiscences of Sam, and meet regularly to grieve and talk—until Millamant the cat begins to dance. Emilia never saw Sam dance, but Jake did, and the dancing cat gives him the shivers. When the cat also talks, it's clear that Sam's spirit has somehow entered her. Overjoyed at first, Jake and Emilia, and eventually Sam, discover that they cannot accept this unnaturally prolonged existence: it's time for Sam to move on.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451458001
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/1/2000
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 6.52 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle
PETER S. BEAGLE is one of the world's best-loved fantasy authors. His works include the novels A Fine and Private Place and The Folk of the Air, as well as nonfiction books and the screenplay for the animated film version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. He lives in Davis, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    The cat. The cat is doing what?

    Believe me, it's no good to tell you. You have to see.

    Emilia, she's old. Old cats get really weird sometimes.

    Not like this. You have to see, that's all.

    You're serious. You're going to put Millamant in a box, a case, and bring her all the way to California, just for me to ... When are you coming?

    I thought Tuesday. I'm due ten days' sick leave....

    No. This isn't how you do it. This isn't how you talk about Sam and Emilia and yourself. And Millamant. You've got hold of the wrong end, same as usual. Start from the beginning. For your own sake, tell it, just write it down the way it was, as far as you'll ever know. Start with the answering machine. That much you're sure about, anyway....

    The machine was twinkling at me when I came home from the Pacific Rep's last-but-one performance of The Iceman Cometh. I ignored it. You can live with things like computers, answering gadgets, fax machines, even e-mail, but they have to know their place. I hung up my coat, checked the mail, made myself a drink, took it and the newspaper over to the one comfortable chair I've got, sank down in it, drank my usual toast to our lead—who is undoubtedly off playing Hickey in Alaska today, feeding wrong cues to a cast of polar bears—and finally hit the PLAY button.

    "Jacob, it's Marianne. In New York." I only hear from Marianne Hooper at Christmas these days, but we've known each other a longtime, in the odd, offhand way of theater people, and there's no mistaking that husky, incredibly world-weary sound—she's been making a fortune doing voice-overs for the last twenty years. There was a pause. Marianne could always get more mileage out of a well-timed pause than Jack Benny. I raised my glass to the answering machine.

    "Jacob, I'm so sorry, I hate to be the one to tell you. Sam was found dead in his apartment last night. I'm so sorry."

    It didn't mean anything. It bounced off me—it didn't mean anything. Marianne went on. "People at the magazine got worried when he didn't come in to work, didn't answer the phone for two days. They finally broke into the apartment." The famous anonymous voice was trembling now. "Jacob, I'm so terribly ... Jacob, I can't do this anymore, on a machine. Please call me." She left her number and hung up.

    I sat there. I put my drink down, but otherwise I didn't move. I sat very still where I was, and I thought, There's been a mistake. It's his turn to call me on Saturday, I called last week. Marianne's made a mistake. I thought, Oh, Christ, the cat, Millamant—who's feeding Millamant? Those two, back and forth, over and over.

    I don't know how late it was when I finally got up and phoned Marianne, but I know I woke her. She said, "I called you last. I called his parents before I could make myself call you."

    "He was just here," I said. "In July, for God's sake. He was fine." I had to heave the words up one at a time, like prying stones out of a wall. "We went for walks."

    "It was his heart." Marianne's voice was so toneless and uninflected that she sounded like someone else. "He was in the bathroom—he must have just come home from Lincoln Center—"

    "The Schönberg. He was going to review that concert Moses und Aron—"

    "He was still wearing his gangster suit, the one he always wore to openings—"

    I was with him when he bought that stupid, enviable suit. I said, "The Italian silk thing. I remember."

    Marianne said, "As far as they—the police—as far as anyone can figure, he came home, fed the cat, kicked off his shoes, went into the bathroom and—And died." She was crying now, in a hiccupy, totally unprofessional way. "Jacob, they think it was instant. I mean, they don't think he suffered at all."

    I heard myself say, "I never knew he had a heart condition. Secretive little fink, he never told me."

    Marianne managed a kind of laugh. "I don't think he ever told anyone. Even his mother and father didn't know."

    "The cigarettes," I said. "The goddamn cigarettes. He was here last summer, trying to cut down—he said his doctor had scared the hell out of him. I just thought, lung cancer, he's afraid of getting cancer. I never thought about his heart, I'm such an idiot. Oh, God, I have to call them, Mike and Sarah."

    "Not tonight, don't call them tonight." She'd been getting the voice back under control, but now it went again. "They're in shock; I did it to them, don't you. Wait till morning. Call them in the morning."

    My mouth and throat were so dry they hurt, but I couldn't pick up my drink again. I said, "What's being done? You have to notify people, the police. I don't even know if he had a will. Where's the—Where is he now?"

    "The police have the body, and the apartment's closed. Sealed—it's what they do when somebody dies without a witness. I don't know what happens next. Jacob, can you please come?"

    "Thursday," I said. "Day after tomorrow. I'll catch the redeye right after the last performance."

    "Come to my place. I've moved, there's a guest room." She managed to give me an East Eighties address before the tears came again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I've been fine all day. I guess it's just caught up with me now."

    "I'm not quite sure why," I said. I heard Marianne draw in her breath, and I went on, "Marianne, I'm sorry, I know how cold that sounds, but you and Sam haven't been an item for—what?—twelve years? Fifteen? I mean, this is me, Marianne. You can't be the grieving widow, it's just not your role."

    I've always said things to Marianne that I'd never say to anyone else—it's the only way to get her full attention. Besides, it made her indignant, which beat the hell out of maudlin. She said, "We always stayed friends, you know that. We'd go out for dinner, he took me to plays—he must have told you. We were always friends, Jacob."

    Sam cried over her. It was the only time that I ever saw Sam cry. "Thursday morning, then. It'll be good to see you." Words, thanks, sniffles. We hung up.

    I couldn't stay sitting. I got up and walked around the room. "Oh, you little bastard," I said aloud. "Kagan, you miserable, miserable twit, who said you could just leave? We had plans, we were going to be old together, you forgot about that?" I was shouting, bumping into things. "We were going to be these terrible, totally irresponsible old men, so elegant and mannerly nobody would ever believe we just peed in the potted palm. We were going to learn karate, enter the Poker World Series, moon our fiftieth high school reunion, sit in the sun at spring-training baseball camps—we had stuff to do! What the hell were you thinking of, walking out in the middle of the movie? You think I'm about to do all that crap alone?"

    I don't know how long I kept it up, but I know I was still yelling while I packed. I didn't have another show lined up after Iceman until the Rep's Christmas Carol went into rehearsal in two months, with Bob Cratchit paying my rent one more time. No pets to feed, no babies crying, no excuses to make to anyone ... there's something to be said for being fifty-six, twice divorced and increasingly set in my ways. I'm a good actor, with a fairly wide range for someone who looks quite a bit like Mister Ed, but I've got no more ambition than I have star quality. Which may be a large part of the reason why Sam Kagan and I were so close for so long.

    We met in high school, in a drama class. I already knew that I was going to be an actor—though of course it was Olivier back then, not Mister Ed. The teacher was choosing students at random to read various scenes, and we, sitting at neighboring desks, got picked for a dialogue from Major Barbara. I was Adolphus Cusins, Barbara's Salvation Army fiancé; Sam played Undershaft, the arms manufacturer. He wasn't familiar with the play, but I was, and with Rex Harrison, who'd played Cusins in the movie, and whose every vocal mannerism I had down cold. Yet when we faced off over Barbara's ultimate allegiance and Sam proclaimed, in an outrageously fragrant British accent, Undershaft's gospel of "money and gunpowder—freedom and power—command of life and command of death," there wasn't an eye in that classroom resting anywhere but on him. I may have known the play better than he, but he knew that it was a play. It was the first real acting lesson I ever had.

    I told him so in the hall after class. He looked honestly surprised. "Oh, good night, Undershaft's easy, he's all one thing—in that scene, anyway." The astonishing accent was even riper than before. "Now Cusins is bloody tricky, Cusins is much harder to play." He grinned at me—God, were the cigarettes already starting to stain his teeth then?—and added, "You do a great early Harrison, though. Did you ever see St. Martin's Lane? They're running it at the Thalia all next week."

    He was the first person I had ever met in my life who talked like me. What I mean by that is that both of us much preferred theatrical dialogue to ordinary Brooklyn conversation, theatrical structure and action to life as it had been laid out for us. It makes for an awkward childhood—I'm sure that's one reason I got into acting so young—and people like us learn about protective coloration earlier than most. And we tend to recognize each other.

    Sam. He was short—notably shorter than I, and I'm not tall—with dark eyes and dark, wavy hair, the transparent skin and soft mouth of a child, and a perpetual look of being just about to laugh. Yet even that early on, he kept his deep places apart: when he did laugh or smile, it was always quick and mischievous and gone. The eyes were warm, but that child's mouth held fast—to what, I don't think I ever knew.

    He was a much better student than I—if it hadn't been for his help in half my subjects, I'd still be in high school. Like me, he was completely uninterested in anything beyond literature and drama; quite unlike me, he accepted the existence of geometry, chemistry and push-ups, where I never believed in their reality for a minute. "Think of it as a role," he used to tell me. "Right now you're playing a student, you're learning the periodic table like dialogue. Some day, good night, you might have to play a math teacher, a coach, a mad scientist. Everything has to come in useful to an actor, sooner or later."

    He called me Jake, as only one other person ever has. He was a gracious loser at card and board games, but a terrible winner, who could gloat for two days over a gin rummy triumph. He was the only soul I ever told about my stillborn older brother, whose name was Elias. I knew where he was buried—though I had not been told—and I took Sam there once. He was outraged when he learned that we never spoke of Elias at home, and made me promise that I'd celebrate Elias's birthday every year. Because of Sam, I've been giving my brother a private birthday party for more than forty years. I've only missed twice.

    Sam had surprisingly large hands, but his feet were so tiny that I used to tease him, referring to them as "ankles with toes." It was a sure way to rile him, as nothing else would do. Those small feet mattered terribly to Sam.

    He was a dance student, most often going directly from last-period math to classes downtown. Wanting to dance wasn't something boys admitted to easily then—certainly not in our Brooklyn high school, where being interested in anything beside football, fighting and very large breasts could get you called a faggot. I was the one person who knew about those classes; and we were seniors, with a lot of operas, Dodgers games and old Universal horror movies behind us, before I actually saw him dance.

    There was a program at the shabby East Village studio where he was taking classes three times a week by then. Two pianos, folding chairs, and a sequence of presentations by students doing solo bits or pas de deux from the classic ballets. Sam's parents were there, sitting quietly in the very last row. I knew them, of course, as well as any kid who comes over to visit a friend for an afternoon ever knows the grown-ups floating around in the background. Mike was a lawyer, fragile-looking Sarah an elementary-school teacher; beyond that, all I could have said about them—or can say now—was that they so plainly thought their only child was the entire purpose of evolution that it touched even my hard adolescent heart. I can still see them on those splintery, rickety chairs: holding hands, except when they tolerantly applauded the fragments of Swan Lake and Giselle, waiting patiently for Sam to come onstage.

    He was next to last on the program—the traditional starring slot in vaudeville—performing his own choreography to the music of Borodin's In the Steppes Of Central Asia. And what his dance was like I cannot tell you now, and I couldn't have told you then, dumbly enthralled as I was by the sight of my lunchroom friend hurling himself about the stage with an explosive ferocity that I'd never seen or imagined in him. Some dancers cut their shapes in the air; some burn them; but Sam tore and clawed his, and seemed literally to leave the air bleeding behind him. I can't even say whether he was good or not, as the word is used—though he was unquestionably the best ii1 that school, and more people than his parents were on their feet when he finished. What I did somehow understand, bright and blind as I was, was that he was dancing for his life.


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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Beagle at his best

    Sam and Jacob have been friends ever since they met in drama class in New York. Sam wants to become a dancer while Jacob hopes to be an actor. Jacob somewhat achieves his goal, but Sam fails to make it. Years pass, but the two friends remain in touch. Recently, Sam informs Jacob that he acquired an Abyssinian cat named Millament and his present girl friend Emilla is thirty years younger than he is. <P>Unexpectedly, Sam dies from a heart attack. Jacob meets Emilla when he comes to clear out Sam¿s things. Jacob takes the cat home with him accompanied by Emilla so that can help each other grieve. Unexpectedly, the elderly arthritic Millament begins hoofing like a professional dancer and follows that up by talking. Jacob and Emilla¿s needs have brought Sam back to comfort them, but no one knows how he will return to that other place where he belongs now. <P> Cat lovers and Peter Beagle¿s fans will want to read this book, but should consider the price because though well written this book is a short novella. The book is beautifully filled with the Beagle magic, making it a wonderful holiday gift for those readers who cherish every one of the author¿s novels. <P>Harriet Klausner

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