Nell Stevens’ ‘Briefly, A Delicious Life’ Focuses on Late-Learned Love: NPR


In short, a delicious life

Nell Stevens’ first novel In short, a delicious life is a curious mix of historical fiction, a ghost story and a strange love story.

The novel’s narrator, Blanca, is the shrewd ghost of a 14-year-old girl who died in a charterhouse on the island of Majorca in 1473. She has remained there ever since, deliberately haunting generations of monks and sextons in retaliation for she. premature death.

Blanca’s story centers on how her afterlife is drastically changed when French writer George Sand and her tuberculous lover, composer Frederic Chopin, arrive from Paris in 1838 with Sand’s two children and her unhappy servant to spend the winter in Valldemossa – stupidly hoping to find the sun and the heat to treat the sick composer. Lacking other options, they settle in the damp and abandoned monastery.

From the moment Blanca first sees the unconventional, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing writer, she’s smitten. Of course, Sand, née Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, can neither see nor hear her, but Blanca has developed over the centuries ways to attract attention, such as spilling hot drinks. She also discovered a welcome diversion: the ability to get inside people’s heads to access their feelings and memories. This is how she – and readers – learn of Sand’s early and unhappy marriage to Casimir Dudevant and her sexually liberated life as a popular Parisian author. Blanca’s clairvoyance allows Stevens to open his novel with flashbacks and multiple points of view that would otherwise be beyond the skill of his long-dead narrator.

Blanca, still the mischievous teenager, tells us, “When I was digging into people’s memories, I was looking for two things: formative experiences and rough passages.” She is particularly fond of sex and likes to reminisce about the dates by the sea with a young novice from the monastery that led her to the end of her happy childhood.

Although this is Stevens’ first foray into fiction, its genre plot combines elements from his two previous books, both memoirs with nods to 19th-century literature. In darker house, Stevens wrote of her failed attempt to write a novel even after isolating herself from all distractions on the aptly named and inhospitable Bleaker Island in the Falklands, where she spent six uncomfortable and weather-prone weeks. In The Victorian and the Romanticwhich was published under the title Mrs. Gaskell and me in the UK, she juxtaposed her struggles with a doctoral dissertation on Victorian literature with two thwarted love stories more than 150 years apart.

In short, a delicious life takes its title from a quote from Chopin in which the composer extols the delights of a summertime haven of turquoise skies, azure seas and emerald mountains. Stevens’ depiction of his characters’ stay in Majorca is pretty much the opposite of a delightful life, though it does lead to a happy awakening for his queer ghost. She enthusiastically describes the acute discomforts induced by damp, dripping walls, bad weather, inadequate food, and blood-soaked tissues. Hostile villagers, fearful of being contaminated by Chopin, do nothing to brighten the picture. Market vendors refuse to sell food to French visitors, local servants cheat on them, and children throw rocks at Sand’s 10-year-old daughter.

Whether he’s writing about an angry mob or a frustrated teenager, Stevens excels at conveying extreme emotions, including physical desire and desire. “What is desire, without a body to have it?” asks Blanca, awakened to the true nature of her sexuality more than 350 years after her death. “All I can say is, for me, it was like the kind of hunger people feel in dreams.” And here is how Stevens describes the intensity of Sand’s feelings for Chopin at the start of their relationship: “George is so overwhelmed with love that she almost wants to nurse him.”

But for all of its vivid atmospheres, Stevens is surprisingly carefree about certain details, including why Blanca is the only ghost. More troublesome are the linguistic anachronisms scattered throughout the novel. These include the very modern use of “tasked” as a verb, and Blanca’s reflection that her mother, eager to meet her lover, “would have sat down with us and presided over the meeting if she had” . Were meetings chaired in 1473? And would a 15th century girl drop a string of “oh my gods” during a fit of giggles? It may be an unfair comparison, but Maggie O’Farrell’s moving novel Hamnet, on the death of Shakespeare’s eponymous son, casts its charm in part by never breaking the period character.

In short, a delicious life is a strange book, more intriguing than haunting. Its narrator is curiously attractive, but she does not cast a spell. Yet some of her observations resonate as she belatedly discovers that love, always mutable, comes in multiple, sometimes surprising forms. Initially intrigued by Sand’s affection for the grumpy composer, she comes to understand that “Chopin’s music was his best. Therein lay his beauty.” Which, when you think about it, is one way to describe love: recognizing where the beauty of the other lies.


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