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The Dancer, The Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light
By Liz Heinecke
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Part hidden history, part love letter to creative innovation, this is the true story of an unlikely friendship between a dancer, Loie Fuller, and a scientist, Marie Curie, brought together by an illuminating discovery.At the turn of the century, Paris was a hotbed of creativity. Technology boomed, delivering to the world electric light, the automobile, and new ways to treat disease, while imagination blossomed, creating Art Nouveau, motion pictures, and modernist literature. A pivotal figure during this time, yet largely forgotten today, Loie Fuller was an American performance artist who became a living symbol of the Art Nouveau movement with her hypnotic dances and stunning theatrical effects. Credited today as the pioneer of modern dance, she was perennially broke, never took no for an answer, spent most of her life with a female partner, and never questioned her drive. She was a visionary, a renegade, and a loyal friend.
In the early 1900s, she heard about Marie Curie’s discovery of a glowing blue element and dreamed of using it to dazzle audiences on stage. While Loie’s dream wouldn’t be realized, her connection with Marie and their shared fascination with radium endured. Radiant is the true story of Marie Curie and Loie Fuller, two revolutionary women drawn together at the dawn of a new era by a singular discovery, and the lifelong friendship that grew out of their shared passion for enlightenment.
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I first stumbled across the name Loïe Fuller while reading Ève Curie’s biography about her mother, Marie Curie. Ève described how Fuller, the star of the Folies Bergère, approached her parents, Marie and Pierre, with the idea of making “butterfly wings of radium.” She wrote, “The dancer was Loïe Fuller, a ‘light fairy’ whose fantastic inventions enchanted Paris,” adding that “a picturesque friendship united her to the two physicists.”
Radiant is the story of two brilliant women, spinning in distant orbits, who collided in Paris at the twilight of the Belle Epoque with an explosion of creativity and light. One can only imagine exactly what Marie Curie thought of Loïe Fuller, but Loïe’s life and work were heavily influenced by their friendship. She kept meticulous journals chronicling her interactions with the scientist. Words inked in these notebooks and Ève Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie, illuminate pivotal moments shared by the dancer and the scientist.
Radiant is a work of creative nonfiction based on the lives of Loïe Fuller and Marie Curie. Numerous documents indicate that Loïe and Marie met various times over the years—at their homes, in the Curie laboratories, in August Rodin’s studios, and once at the theater. The dialogue in this book is mostly invented, inspired by extensive research, letters, personal memoirs, and biographies. When possible, I inserted Loïe and Marie’s own words into the conversation. Loïe Fuller created her own legend, lied about her age, and often gave contradictory information, but the dates in this story are accurate, with the exception of Loïe’s interview with the Strand Magazine, which actually took place in 1894.
It is also important to acknowledge that this book is set primarily in Europe at the height of colonialism. The story is told from the point of view of two women of European descent immersed in societies responsible for the enslavement, suffering, and death of countless people and cultures. Although many of the historical figures in the narrative were progressive thinkers, none of them were innocent of the prejudiced attitudes and unconscious biases ubiquitous at the time.
Both women were famous, and a tapestry of newspaper articles from the years when they lived weaves a background as colorful as one of Loïe’s performances. While they were often drawn apart by circumstance—war, loves, and losses—the magnetic power of friendship and a luminescent blue light pulled them back together again and again. Their stories remind us of the duel nature of scientific discovery and demonstrate that in hard times, we must not only persevere but learn from our missteps and keep looking forward.
She evokes the otherworldly; materializes what is intangible.
She brings to our eyes what we would not see.
—Léo Clarétie on Loïe Fuller
Will someone put that light out?” Loïe whispered to a shadow behind the curtain.
With a sputter, the last gaslight was extinguished and it went dark backstage at the Folies Bergère. The five-foot-two American dancer raised her arms to extend the gauzy wings of her gown, gripping the smooth, light rods sewn into the folds of the dress as if her life depended on it. Her body hummed with nervous energy. She had to move.
Pushing her hands back and forth and rotating her wrists, Loïe created gentle undulations in the featherweight silk for a few moments before lowering her arms to maneuver the skirt back into place with a shimmy. She dropped her head, willed her shoulders to relax, and waited. It was impossible to wipe away the bead of sweat that tickled its way across her cheek down to the end of her nose, where it rested for a few moments before free-falling into blackness.
“Faker, Faker, Faker.” The childhood taunt always haunted her at moments like these. She could still picture the faces of the boys who had teased her when she was a child, but they were grown men now. Maybe she was a faker, but fabricating the impossible from the ordinary was her greatest skill. Loïe might not be the most beautiful dancer in Paris, but she was by far the most inventive. Rather than depending on choreography or exposed flesh, she incorporated technology into her art to make it new and modern. Light, color, and nature were her muses, and she called on them to create dances so original that they crossed over into the realm of art. She only required an audience with the vision to appreciate what she’d done.
Loïe desperately hoped that Paris would be that audience. She’d fallen in love with the idea of the city and everything it stood for: art, beauty, modernity. Her own homeland refused to appreciate the importance of her work or credit her for it, and her ideas were being stolen almost as fast as she could manufacture them. Attempts to patent her costumes and choreography in the United States had failed miserably, and there was little comfort in the fact that none of her imitators had been talented enough to copy her special lighting and color effects successfully.
If no one in Paris was moved by her dances or recognized her talent for innovation, this would be just another failed stop on her endless quest for artistic and financial success. Still, she had a feeling that this city was her oyster. It had to be. Parisians appreciated art, or so she’d been told. Paris could make her dreams come true.
Thanks to Thomas Edison’s recent invention of the lightbulb, the famous French capital had been transformed into the City of Light. For the first time, it was possible to walk the narrow streets safely after dark. Packed cafés and bars had become fertile ground for late-night conversations. Best of all, the city was a magnet for modern thinkers and the air was heavy with inspiration, full of ideas waiting to be plucked and formed by artists, writers, and philosophers.
New methods of depicting the world using language, line, and color were being born as fast as they could be jotted down. After years of portraying wealth, power, and religion, artists and writers had moved in a new direction and were now exploring the lives of working people, making them larger than life. Rather than representing royals and mythological figures, painters like Gustave Caillebotte and Camille Pissarro filled their canvases with revolutionary images of peasants scraping floors and gathering grass.
Naturalist writers like Émile Zola and J. K. Huysmans used starkly realistic descriptions to explore the life of the working class and the poverty-stricken. Zola’s work, which occasionally wove myth into human experience and endowed ordinary objects with lifelike qualities, ignited a new school of thought called symbolism, whose disciples embraced dreams, the mythological and the spiritual, believing that truth was revealed in emotional reactions to words and visual experiences.
As an American, Loïe wasn’t under the same constraints as French women, who struggled to pursue interests other than motherhood in a society that valued them primarily as vessels for bearing children. Despite the fact that they were legally and financially dependent on men, many women in Paris were searching for a way to move more independently into the future. They were studying every possible subject at the famous Sorbonne University, and a few paintings by female artists hung in the Parisian salons alongside those of male artists.
* * *
A deep, percussive clang indicated that the show was about to begin. As the last gaslight at the front of the stage was extinguished per Loïe’s instructions, the murmur in the theater died down. The audience sat confused.
Stages were rarely if ever darkened, and Loïe had shrouded this one in black cloth, hanging a dark blue backdrop and ordering the orchestra to darken the pit as much as possible. When she’d peeked through the curtain earlier to remind the musicians to cover their music-stand lights, it had been obvious from the wagging heads in the reed section and the muttering cello player that they thought she’d entirely lost her mind. At first, they’d resisted following the orders of a woman, but the theater manager, Édouard Marchand, had told them to listen to Loïe.
A few shrill whistles echoed through the cavernous space and died away. Finally, with a creak of ropes and swish of fabric, the curtain rose, crinkling up layer after layer, like an enormous red Roman blind. Cigar smoke and beer-scented air rushed onstage to envelop Loïe in a stifling embrace. It was impossible for her to see the audience, but she could hear them shifting in their seats and murmuring in the dark.
The clear, sweet sound of a violin pierced the silence and sent a tingle of anticipation from her scalp to her fingertips. A second chill moved down her spine when the first beam of light appeared from one of the spotlights in the gallery, illuminating her dress like the first ray of dawn. Loïe could see the toes of her shoes now, but she remained as motionless as a statue as the music coaxed more light to the stage, little by little, making her dress glow like morning sun on a mountain peak.
“C’est un ange!” a low voice shouted in French. “It’s an angel.”
“Show us your legs,” someone called out in heavily accented English. The comment was answered with laughter, and more whistles cut through the smoky air.
Loïe had trained herself to take slow, deep breaths while she listened for the chord progression that signaled it was time to bring her first dance to life. In those moments, she allowed her imagination to soar to the first row of the balcony, where she visualized herself onstage as a form draped in white; a dazzling apparition that had materialized in dusty electric beams; a far different creature from the corset-squeezed mannequin the crowd was expecting.
Only a few minutes before, she’d been shouting last-minute instructions to the twelve men on her lighting crew. Getting everything just right. Growing up on the stage had given Loïe an uncanny sense of the magnetic bond between the senses and human emotion. Atmosphere was everything. She absorbed technology like a sponge, noting every new special effect and the potential of each piece of equipment she encountered. She brought it all together in her original lighting system, which was far more technical and involved than anything the electricians at the Folies had ever seen. With electricity and her inventions, she could transform a burlesque club stage into a strikingly modern venue.
Marchand thought she was out of her mind at first, but he’d let her set the lighting using the special configuration she’d designed. In the week before the show, Loïe and her electricians positioned seven electric spotlights around the stage of the Folies: Two were visible on either side of the first gallery, two were hidden toward the back, with a pair in the wings behind the curtain, and the final light was hidden under a glass plate she’d had set into the floor underneath the spot where she would dance.
Once the equipment was in place, she’d taught the electricians to assemble each spotlight lens behind the special rotating disks she’d designed, which could be spun so that the light would shine through one of several holes that ringed them. Each round hole contained glass tinted a different color. Using dried gelatin and special combinations of chemicals she’d mixed and tested herself, Loïe had been able to create rich hues and patterns on the glass that would illuminate her dances.
She’d designed and choreographed her act so that as she danced, she could signal the men to rotate the disks to shine certain colors on her at certain times. The disks could be turned quickly to produce a kaleidoscope effect as the colors rushed and spun through the light onto Loïe’s skirts and robes. Each time she danced, the performance was slightly different. Loïe relied on music and the audience for inspiration, but she left little to chance. Every detail of the performance had been gone over in her mind a hundred times, and she drilled the men over and over until they could manipulate the lights and disks with the exactitude of clockwork in response to her commands.
That evening, as she’d shouted and tapped her way through a series of signals one last time, Loïe had heard the hubbub rising from the crowd assembling in the lobby. There was always a robust audience at the Folies Bergère. The spectators were mostly working-class Parisians, but the upper classes had lately begun to grace the sordid dance halls too. Well-to-do women rarely made an appearance at the club, but famous beauties like Caroline Otero, who kicked and gyrated on the stage, were magnets for the wealthy married men who made a sport of collecting and keeping courtesans.
Writers, critics, and artists also frequented the club, and Loïe hoped that some might be there to see her dance. She knew that the diminutive M. Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular, carousing with dancers and courtesans while drinking himself into oblivion. Barely five feet tall, the artist was the premier poster artist of Paris and the starmaker of Montmartre, as famous for his cruel wit as he was for the stunning lithographs that turned nightclub performers into celebrities. The famous sculptor Auguste Rodin was spotted at the Folies on occasion as well. These men wouldn’t give her a second glance if they passed her on the street, but Loïe hoped she could capture their attention onstage. With a few words or brushstrokes, they could help her stand out from the crowd.
Familiar chords drifting up from the orchestra pit reunited her mind with her body and she was back onstage, squinting in the white spotlight. Inhaling deeply through her nose, she inflated her lungs to expand her chest and opened herself to the music, colors exploding in her mind. The vibrations of low, bluish notes coming from the string bass tingled in her fingertips, and gray beats from the tympani thrummed in time with her thumping heart. Loïe tensed her body in anticipation.
When the golden strains of her first musical cue finally reached her ears, she opened her arms and raised them to unfurl her fabric wings. Expanding her body like a butterfly into the dark open space around her, she became a canvas for light and movement. Using her entire torso as a fulcrum, she swung the fabric into motion, creating arcs by drawing giant figure eights with the wands attached to the silk. One arm descended as the other extended up in rhythm with the music to trace sweeping figures in the air.
The simple act of raising her arms repeatedly with the weight of the fabric was exhausting, and to survive the physical demands of her dancing, she’d learned to let gravity do some of the work for her. With each sweep of her arms, Loïe released her upper wand, accelerated into the downswing, and then rode the upswing, like a boat on a wave. As she moved the wands, Loïe twisted from side to side until her skirt writhed in a geometric serpentine swirl that extended from the floor to the space above her head. The delicate fabric was as treacherous as it was beautiful. If she let go of the wands, even for a fraction of a second, it would wind up and tangle.
She beamed as she danced, her face mostly obscured by the silken patterns formed by her motion. No longer a woman, she was a spirit of the atmosphere, radiating pure light and energy that was in turn absorbed and translated by the imagination of the audience. She could almost feel the light reflecting off her skin, her hair, and her dress.
Loïe was concentrating so hard on responding to the rainbow of sound coming from the orchestra as she spun that she was startled by the cries of delight that rang out when one of the colored spotlights flashed on, drenching her in yellow. She almost stumbled, but caught herself and tapped the next signal to the men controlling the lights.
With each passing moment, the cheers grew. Squinting and sweating, Loïe tapped signals and moved her wands in the well-rehearsed patterns. She swirled her robes to form more sinuous shapes, transforming herself into a wave, a flower, a butterfly—the geometry of nature. She was fire and water, earth and air. The audience roared.
When she’d finished her Serpentine Dance, the curtain fell and she changed her costume to perform the Violet Dance in a white robe she’d painted with flowers. The audience hooted and cheered through the Butterfly Dance, followed by the White Dance. Tapping her feet to signal the electricians perched throughout the theater, she blazed yellow, blue, violet, and red. With each successive dance, the enthusiasm of the audience grew, and fueled by their cheers, Loïe danced on with aching arms. Her eyes felt like they’d been held to a flame, but she didn’t care. They loved her and she loved them.
Weary of half-naked cancan dancers and frothy Russian ballerinas, Paris had been primed for Loïe’s radical magic. They’d never seen anything like her, and even the most jaded theatergoer became instantly obsessed. Every soul in the red velvet seats that night experienced Loïe differently, and she was multiplied infinitely by their imaginations.
As the symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé would write upon seeing her dance, “She lost the materiality of her body and became an idea.”
When the curtain fell after the fourth dance, Loïe could barely raise her arms. The cheering was so loud that she could no longer hear the prelude that the orchestra was attempting to conjure over the noise, and Loïe was grateful for the chance to rest. She guessed that she’d been dancing without a break for about forty-five minutes. The electricians manning the spotlights in the wings looked exhausted, but they were smiling down at her from their perches. Marchand ordered the curtain to be raised again and again, but it was no use. Loïe couldn’t hear the orchestra. Finally, after more curtain calls than they could count, she asked Marchand to think of a way she could get them to quiet down for the last dance.
“We don’t need it. Don’t you hear the cheering?”
He ordered that the stagehands open the curtain a final time, which proved to be a mistake. A drunken man climbed onto the stage shouting “La Loïe, La Loïe, La Loïe,” and an enormous crowd followed him, swarming to surround Loïe. Someone grabbed her arm and dragged her through a sea of grasping hands as she attempted to protect her precious dress from trampling feet. She was lifted and carried to her dressing room and the door was slammed behind her to keep out the throngs who had trailed her backstage.
Elated and still somewhat terrified, Loïe collapsed into the shabby velvet couch that leaned against the wall in the small space. She dropped the wands she’d been gripping for dear life and put her hands to her hot cheeks. Her eyes ached, and pain shot from her shoulders up her neck to the base of her skull. The skirt she’d tried to shield was stained with black shoe polish and torn at the hem.
Loïe moved one hand to cover her mouth as her eyes filled with tears. Laughter escaped from the cracks between her fingers. In her life, moments of clarity had been few and far between, but at that instant, in a lowbrow theater perfectly situated under the Parisian sky, Loïe knew that her stars had finally aligned.
The Folies Bergère
Loïe had arrived in Paris for the first time with her mother only a few weeks before, hoping to secure a lucrative dancing engagement at the Paris Opéra. She’d immediately, and somewhat recklessly, checked into the Grand Hôtel. The luxurious accommodations were located just across the street from the opera house, which they were told had been nicknamed the Palais Garnier, after its architect. While her mother napped at the hotel and her manager, Marten Stein, spoke with the director of the National Academy of Music and Dancing, M. Gailhard, at the Opéra, Loïe eagerly explored the interior of the Palais Garnier.
In all her travels, she’d never seen anything so opulent. No expense had been spared and the result was a gilded riot of marble, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures. The light gray marble stairs of the grand foyer split from one staircase to form two, curving one way and then another. Every inch was adorned with dancers, gods and goddesses, and she discovered a pair of sinuous dragons hidden on a domed ceiling.
She sneaked past a maroon velvet rope to peek into the grandiose theater, but was disappointed to discover that a lushly painted curtain concealed the stage. The largest chandelier she’d ever seen dangled under the painted central dome, and Loïe guessed that the auditorium held a thousand plush burgundy seats.
Upon returning to the hotel, she learned that things hadn’t gone well at all for Stein. M. Gailhard, a former opera star famous for singing the role of Mephistopheles in his youth, had informed Loïe’s agent that he didn’t find the written description of Loïe’s dances nearly impressive enough to book her on a regular basis.
“In fact,” he’d informed Marten in his famously deep voice, “her imitators have already arrived in Paris.”
The Opéra had only offered her a few engagements a month, which was hardly enough to pay the bills, even at a much less glamorous hotel than the one they’d just checked in to. Loïe was well versed in rejection, but the news still stung, and they were dangerously low on money. The German tour preceding her arrival in Paris had been a complete disaster, and she’d ended up performing in a circus, bookended by an “educated donkey” and a musical elephant.
Loïe had written to M. Gailhard from Germany well ahead of their arrival in Paris, but it had clearly been naive to assume that she could secure an engagement at the Opéra. Now there was no time to waste. With imitators nipping at her heels and money running low, Mr. Stein suggested they visit some other venues in Paris, including the large music hall called the Folies Bergère. Following dinner at the Grand Hôtel, Loïe insisted that they bundle themselves against the cold October air and take a carriage to the Folies that very evening.
After opening as the Folies Trévise in 1869 and briefly masquerading as an opera house, the venue at 32 rue Richer had fully settled into its true nature as a burlesque theater and dance hall. Renamed the Folies Bergère, after the nearby rue Bergère, it retained some of the Trévise’s acts, including gymnasts and musicians, but embraced a more hedonistic attitude.
An easy distance from the Gare du Nord train station, the Folies Bergère was a popular destination for twentieth-century Parisians hungry for the latest craze in entertainment. When Loïe arrived in 1892, Édouard Marchand had taken control of the theater and rebranded it as a British-style music hall that featured mostly female acts, including dancers, singers, and vaudevillians, which tended to be bawdy theatrical comedies.
Although it was considered the most important music hall in Paris, the exterior of the Folies Bergère was unimpressive. Unlike the Moulin Rouge, which stood less than a mile away adorned with a red windmill, or L’Enfer (Hell) with its enormous demon’s-mouth door and facade of tortured bodies, the venue blended in with its surroundings. At street level, posters boasting dancing girls and acrobats were hung from one end of the building to the other, and the gridded windows were high enough to keep out prying eyes. Decorative ironwork bearing the dance hall’s name hung in the center of five large second-story windows flanked by ornate columns, and there was a narrow sidewalk outside where one could study the placards without being run over by a passing horse and carriage.
It was chilly on the evening when they first visited the Folies, but being in Paris was exciting enough to warm Loïe up. The city was as beautiful as she’d imagined it would be, and the architecture was enhanced by October’s golden trees. Tall buildings came together at intersections like the bows of enormous ships with ornate stone ornaments on their prows, and chestnuts littered the boulevards. It felt alive and civilized, with streets full of people drinking coffee and wine in small cafés, as if nothing were more important than a conversation with friends. She wondered what lay behind all the closed doors and courtyard gates they passed.
"Radiant is the story of an unlikely friendship between two boundary-breaking women, each determined to bring some light into a dark world. A remarkable tale of science and art, beauty and loss, the power of the mind and the frailty of the body. Luminous."—Emily Anthes, Award-winning author of The Great Indoors
"Written at the vibrant intersection of science and art, Radiant details the fascinating lives of Marie Curie and Loïe Fuller. Both of these extraordinary women pursued their research with creativity and persistence, imagining radical new possibilities in their respective fields of chemistry and dance. Liz Heinecke's delightful book stages the story of their lively friendship within the proscenium frame of Belle Époque Paris."—Ann Cooper Albright, author of Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller
"[E]xtensive bibliographic notes attest to the factual foundation supporting this irresistible, dramatic, many-faceted, and, yes, illuminating tale of two extraordinary geniuses and their friendship. Heinecke’s fresh take on Curie is welcome, and her portrayal of the too-little-known Fuller is revelatory."—Booklist, starred review
“A unique, satisfying biography/creative nonfiction hybrid that celebrates the achievements of two women who revolutionized the artistic and scientific worlds.”—Kirkus Reviews
“With rich evocations of Belle Époque Paris and accessible introductions to the era’s artistic and scientific breakthroughs, this inspirational portrait of two trailblazing women soars.”—Publishers Weekly
"Liz Heinecke has captured [Curie and Fuller's] lives, their times, and their friendship in a beautifully crafted work of creative nonfiction as gripping as any novel of Belle Epoch Paris."—New York Journal of Books
"Radiant is the absorbing story of two women moving through one another's orbits on the edge of their own singular legacies. In this fascinating story, Heinecke illuminates the individual work of Fuller and Curie along with their shared connection, leaving the reader with a sense of the fighting spirit they both held for their work, the people they loved, and life itself."—Amelia Gray, author of Isadora
"Radiant is an apt name for this novel that illuminates subjects ranging from history to science and most especially, the lives and friendship of Loie Fuller and Marie Curie, two women who refused to let their genius and passion be thwarted by societal norms. An engaging, enlightening, and thoroughly entertaining read."—Lorna Landvik, bestselling author of Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes)
"Radiant is an uplifting story of discovery and friendship. Grounded in scientific and historical research, Liz Heinecke's novel evokes the brilliance of Paris in the Belle Époque and delivers a timely reminder that even frustrated hope can produce enduring fulfillment."—Michael Joseph Gross, contributing editor, Vanity Fair
"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. . . [A] true account that reads as fluidly as a novel."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Heinecke beautifully explores the inspiring true story of the friendship between dancer Loie Fuller and scientist Marie Curie."—E! Online
"Liz Heinecke's Radiant is a fascinating, exhaustively researched story about two women, scientist Marie Curie, and dancer Loie Fuller at the beginning of the 20th century in Paris. Both women broke through impossibly thick glass ceilings to become celebrated innovators. The two meet and an unlikely friendship is forged by both women's fascination with the possibilities of light. Radiant reads like a novel that you can't put down due to Heinecke's impressive prose and a gift for storytelling. I love this book."—Laurie Lindeen, essayist and author of Petal Pusher
"Enchanting and informative, Radiant brings to light two critical figures at the turn of the 20th century: the world's first important female scientist, two-time Nobel-prize winner Marie Curie, and the mother of modern dance, Loie Fuller. This is a story of innovation and tenacity, beautifully conveyed by Liz Heinecke and chock full of scientific tidbits. Read this illuminating book, and you'll encounter Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, and you'll understand why Marie Curie is one of our greatest scientists, why movie theaters are dark, and why you should travel (again) to Paris."—Dr. David Schneider, author of The Invention of Surgery
"Liz Heinecke expertly weaves the remarkable stories of two breathtakingly original women, Marie Curie and Loïe Fuller, into a superb book. Both women disrupted expectations and forged new paths in their fields and their friendship reveals the powerful connection between art and science at the turn of the 20th century. Radiant is compelling and vibrant."—Zeva Oelbaum, co-director of Obsessed with Light
- On Sale
- Feb 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing