Nell Stevens, in her debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life, brings together several unlikely characters from the past, centuries apart. It’s a fascinating story about Blanca, a restless teenage spirit, who died in the 15th century in the village of Valldemossa, on the island of Mallorca, and ends up hundreds of years later spying on author George Sand and composer Frederick Chopin, two famous personalities of the 19th century. Chopin happens to be my favourite composer, and since I had recently visited a few sculptures dedicated to his life in a park in Warsaw, near where he was born, I was immediately intrigued. And of course, George Sand is another notable personality who gained a world following because of her daring nature, dress, and writing.
The novel begins with the ghost’s spotting of George Sand and Chopin kissing. Blanca is initially taken aback as she’d never seen two men kissing before. She soon discovers that one of the men is a woman dressed in men’s clothing and immediately falls in love with her. She discovers the couple are lovers, and though they’ve come with two children, the man is not the woman’s husband, but the children are the woman’s. They’ve arranged a stay at The Charterhouse, a former monastery that Blanca has been haunting for centuries. George Sand has brought Chopin to this small Catholic village, in hopes that whatever is ailing him will be helped by the climate.
The story bounces back and forth in time. We move from eavesdropping—through Blanca’s remarkable abilities as a ghost—on the author, composer, and the author’s children, to the time Blanca came of age. Back then, the monastery was full of monks and novices, who wielded both power and respect in the small Catholic community of Valldemossa.
We first glimpse the monks when they parade through the streets and Blanca’s mother says, when confronted by all that masculinity, “Blanca, we live amongst beautiful men.”
Blanca’s curiousity is whetted by what her mother says and on what she sees. Her older sister has also been telling her about the sexual experience she’s been having with a neighbour of theirs, causing Blanca to wonder about her own growing desire to be satisifed. As Blanca looks upon the monks parading past her and her mother, she spots one young novice, who looks close to her age. He’s attractive and something stirs within her. She sees him again after she’s had a swim in the sea nearby. She watches him scramble down the rock face, disrobe, and enter the water naked. When he invites her to join him, she hesitates, but at his insistence, she returns to the water for another swim. How their relationship develops is the story that weaves in and out of the one about George Sand and Chopin.
The sections about George Sand and Frederic Chopin are based on facts. Sand did take Chopin to Valldemossa, where they were met by villagers who looked upon their illicit relationship with both horror and revulsion. The locals were further incensed when these strangers did not go to church and flouted convention, and because of that, they made sure their stay was most unpleasant.
In this novel, Nell Stevens successfully marries some magic realism with non-fiction elements. The author’s portrayal of Chopin’s illness and the various doctors’ attempts to cure him is believable. There’s a wonderful chapter that shows George Sand earnestly trying to please Chopin when he complains of not being able to work because he misses his piano. Intent on fulfilling his wish for a better instrument, she pursues getting him what he needs, under the most miserable circumstances.
We don’t learn much about Chopin’s life before he met George Sand, but we get her remembrance of a previous relationship, which was also fraught with challenges. And again, through Blanca’s extraordinary abilities, we also witness how this celebrity author behaved as a mother with her daughter, Solange, and her son, Maurice, who she doted on.
Though I wasn’t clear where the story was going and what Blanca wanted, the writing is exquisite. There were so many delicious phrases and sentences, that it’s fitting the author titled her novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life.
Blanca’s relationship with the novice and the mystery of how she died and why she continued to roam and haunt the Charterhouse is what kept me reading.
About the Author
Nell Stevens is the author of Bleaker House and The Victorian & the Romantic, which won the 2019 Somerset Maugham Award. She was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award and her writing has been published in The New York Times, Vogue, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Granta, and elsewhere. Nell is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Warwick.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 19, 2022)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982190941