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In 'Briefly, A Delicious Life,' love comes in multiple, sometimes surprising, forms


Nell Stevens' debut novel Briefly, A Delicious Life is a curious mashup of historical fiction, a ghost story, and a queer love story.

The novel's narrator, Blanca, is the perspicacious ghost of a 14-year-old girl who died in a Carthusian monastery on the island of Mallorca in 1473. She has remained there ever since, deliberately haunting generations of monks and sacristans in retaliation for her premature demise.

Blanca's tale focuses on how her after-death existence is dramatically changed when French writer George Sand and her tubercular lover, composer Frederic Chopin, arrive from Paris in 1838 with Sand's two children and her unhappy maid to spend the winter in Valldemossa — foolishly hoping to find sunshine and warmth to cure the ailing composer. Lacking other options, they take up residency in the dank, abandoned monastery.

From the moment Blanca first sees the unconventional, cigar-smoking, trouser-clad writer, she's smitten. Of course, Sand, née Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, can neither see nor hear her, but Blanca has over the centuries developed ways of getting attention, such as by knocking over scalding beverages. She has also discovered a welcome diversion: the ability to enter into people's heads to gain access to their feelings and memories. This is how she — and readers — learn of Sand's early, unhappy marriage to Casimir Dudevant and of her sexually liberated life as a popular Parisian author. Blanca's clairvoyance enables Stevens to open up her novel with flashbacks and multiple points of view that would otherwise be beyond her long-dead narrator's purview.

Blanca, ever the mischievous teenager, tells us, "When I rummaged through people's memories, I looked for two things: formative experiences and rude bits." She is particularly keen on sex, and enjoys recalling the beachside trysts with a young novice from the monastery which led to the end of her happy childhood.

Although this is Stevens' first foray into fiction, its genre-bending plot combines elements of her two prior books, both memoirs with nods to 19th century literature. In Bleaker House, Stevens wrote about her failed attempt to write a novel even after sequestering herself from all distractions on the aptly-named, inhospitable Bleaker Island in the Falklands, where she spent six uncomfortable, weather-lashed weeks. In The Victorian and the Romantic, which was published as Mrs. Gaskell and Me in the UK, she juxtaposed her struggles with a doctoral dissertation on Victorian literature with two thwarted love stories set more than 150 years apart.

Briefly, A Delicious Life takes its title from a quote by Chopin in which the composer touts the deliciousness of a summer haven of turquoise skies, azure seas, and emerald mountains. Stevens' depiction of her characters' stay on Mallorca is pretty much the opposite of a delicious life, although it leads to a happy awakening for her queer ghost. She describes with gusto the acute discomforts induced by damp, drippy walls, foul weather, inadequate food, and blood-soaked handkerchiefs. Hostile villagers, fearful of contamination from Chopin, do nothing to brighten the picture. Market vendors refuse to sell the French visitors food, local servants cheat them, and children throw stones at Sand's 10-year-old daughter.

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

But for all her vivid atmospherics, Stevens is surprisingly insouciant about some details, including why Blanca is the only ghost around. More irksome are the linguistic anachronisms scattered throughout the novel. These include the very modern usage of "tasked" as a verb, and Blanca's reflection that her mother, eager to meet her lover, "would have sat with us and chaired the meeting if she had her way." Were meetings chaired in 1473? And would a 15th century girl have dropped a string "oh my gods" during a laughing fit? It's perhaps an unfair comparison, but Maggie O'Farrell's moving novel Hamnet, about the death of Shakespeare's eponymous son, casts its spell in part by never breaking period character.

Briefly, A Delicious Life is a strange book, more intriguing than mesmerizing. Its narrator is quirkily appealing, but she does not cast a spell. Still, some of her observations resonate as she belatedly discovers that love, ever mutable, comes in multiple, sometimes surprising, forms. Initially puzzled by Sand's affection for the cranky composer, she comes to understand that "Chopin's music was the best of him. It was where his loveliness resided." Which, when you think about it, is one way of describing love: recognizing where another's loveliness resides.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.