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Alchemy of a Blackbird

A Novel

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About The Book

Named a Best Book of 2023 by Book Riot

For fans of The Age of Light and Z comes a “beguiling novel of artistic ambition, perseverance, and friendship” (Katy Hays, New York Times bestselling author) based on the true story of the 20th-century painters and tarot devotees Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington.

In this “unforgettable adventure, and one you don’t want to miss” (Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author), painter Remedios Varo and her lover, poet Benjamin Peret escape the Nazis by fleeing Paris and arriving at a safe house for artists on the Rivieria.

Along with Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, and others, the two anxiously wait for exit papers.

As the months pass, Remedios begins to sense that the others don’t see her as a fellow artist; they have cast her in the stifling role of a surrealist ideal: the beautiful innocent. She finds refuge in a mysterious bookshop, where she stumbles into a world of occult learning and intensifies an esoteric practice in the tarot that helps her light the bright fire of her creative genius.

When travel documents come through, Remedios and Benjamin flee to Mexico where she is reunited with friend and fellow painter Leonora Carrington. Together, the women tap into their creativity, stake their independence, and each find their true loves. But it is the tarot that enables them to access the transcendent that lies on the other side of consciousness and to become the truest Surrealists of all.

Excerpt

Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Remedios had been looking for a friend like Leonora her whole life. She linked elbows and drew her close while they walked along the bank above the Seine, their legs syncing as they increased their pace.

“Have you been painting at all?” Leonora asked.

Months ago at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, their paintings had hung near each other. That was how they’d met.

Remedios didn’t want to admit that the only things she’d been painting were forgeries for Oscar Sanchez, who then sold them to aristocrats with more money than sense. She wasn’t sure how Leonora would react to such a thing. Not because Leonora would oppose the illegality of it; Remedios had met very few people as unconcerned with convention as Leonora. And not because she’d object to Remedios taking the money; they all needed money. Remedios suspected it would be the inauthenticity of aping someone else’s artistic style that Leonora would object to.

“Yes. Every day,” Remedios said, leaving out exactly what she’d been painting.

“Me too,” Leonora said, hugging Remedios’s elbow to her side. Leonora smelled of cigarettes and an old-fashioned violet perfume that made a striking contrast to her generally rebellious attitude. “Dailyness is the most important thing. Creating that time every day for the muse to come through. Even with everything we’re facing.”

The muse. Leonora spoke as if she were on intimate terms with inspiration, as if her muse were a constant companion, like a well-loved pet or guiding angel, and not something smothered by faking another artist’s muddy color palette and depictions of stolid masculine buildings.

Yellow leaves windowpaned the dark pavement, wet from an early fall shower. Remedios pulled Leonora toward a bouquiniste, one of those bookstalls that had lined the river for centuries. An old lady in a man’s canvas jacket with a bright blue foulard at the neck, the vendeuse, smiled at them. Remedios was aware of the picture she and Leonora were creating—two young, fashionable women, some might even call them beautiful, untroubled in the face of war. Sometimes it thwarted Remedios to be thought of as just another pretty young woman. Today she enjoyed the buoyant image she and Leonora projected together, the fleeting sort of power it gave her.

Or maybe it was being with Leonora that lifted her, Leonora who radiated a unique kind of magic. Everything from the lazy accent with which she pronounced her French to the pendant from her Irish nanny that she wore around her neck was the product of an upper-crust British background she’d rejected with the blithe self-assurance of someone who had always had more than enough. She’d run away from art school with Max Ernst and come to Paris where her behavior quickly became notorious. Once, she’d taken off her shoes and painted her feet with mustard at a café. Another time, in the middle of a party, she’d taken a shower fully clothed and then attended the rest of the evening in clinging wet clothes. Max called her “la petite sauvage.”

And maybe to seem a little savage herself, or maybe it was the coming crisp autumn air, or maybe because she’d been searching for a breakthrough in her own painting wherever she could find it, Remedios picked up a deck of tarot cards from the bookseller’s stall. She needed something that would help her reach the next level of her art. She wasn’t sure what her art was anymore, since she’d spent these last months imitating de Chirico’s. She was still trying to decide if it had improved her skills or knocked the originality right out of her.

She’d come to Paris to be with her lover, the poet Benjamin Péret, who’d bombarded her with an arsenal of poems when they met in Barcelona. Poems so ardent that after two months she couldn’t remember why she’d ever resisted him. This she had in common with Leonora. They were both in love with famous, much older, married, intellectual men. But while Leonora spent her time in a spirit of rebellion and pushing boundaries, Remedios existed in a state of perpetual searching and absorbing.

“Let me buy those for you,” Leonora said, as reflexively generous as only those favored by fortune can be. “Nanny knew about these things. She told me you should never buy tarot cards for yourself.”

“You had someone who taught you about the tarot, mademoiselle?” asked the vendor.

“Only a very little bit, but she taught me that.”

“But this is a very old superstition, meant to keep women away from a source of knowing. Anyone who desires the knowledge of the tarot can buy a deck of cards for herself, can avail herself of that power.” The seller turned to Remedios. “Buy what you wish, mademoiselle. No need to wait for someone to give you what you need. You must acquire your tools for yourself. You are the agent of your destiny.”

And even though this speech was likely part of the seller’s skills refined by years of surviving off the little stall, Remedios dug a few bills out of her deep pockets and handed them over. With her first touch of the cards her shoulders lowered, something settling in her, and she exhaled with the rightness of a key fitting into a lock.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Alchemy of a Blackbird includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claire McMillan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

For fans of The Age of Light and Z, Alchemy of a Blackbird is a mystical, historical novel based on the true story of the twentieth-century painters and occultists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, each beginning as the muse of a famous lover and then breaking away to become an icon in her own right through a powerful friendship that springs from their connection to the tarot.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Readers are immediately introduced to Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. What is your first impression of these friends?

2. In chapter three, readers experience an overview of Remedios’s time in prison before a guard simply unlocks her cell and lets her free. Why do you think this happens?

3. In the beginning of the novel, an angry Oscar hurls his glass at a wall after a mention of him being in love with Remedios, which moments later through his tarot reading we learn may be true. Then, a bit later in the book, Remedios mentions Oscar may help with Benjamin and André’s latest creative idea—and Benjamin hesitates. Why do you think this is? Do you feel Benjamin believes Oscar is in love with Remedios? Why or why not?

4. Remedios and Benjamin are lovers, but she cannot help but feel unsupported when he doesn’t stick up for her, especially to his best friend and partner André. Why do you think Benjamin acts this way?

5. Do you believe it was fate that Remedios ran into the printer’s shop to hide from French police? What do you think Remedios took away from meeting Madame Carvon?

6. Leonora Carrington was given the Two of Cups tarot card (pg. 159). Do you believe this is in reference to her platonic love with Remedios? Or is the card further exploring themes of self-love? Romantic love? Explain your take.

7. Benjamin seemingly encourages Remedios to prioritize her art and her dreams, but his actions and lifestyle say otherwise. What is your take on their dynamic? Do you believe Benjamin is truly supportive of Remedios as an artist?

8. Leonora is a main pillar of support for Remedios and her creativity. How important do you think it is to have a strong foundation in an otherwise lonely career as a solo artist? Does Leonora’s encouragement help drive Remedios’s success?

9. This novel is broken into two parts, France in the fall of 1939 and Mexico in 1941. What growth, personally and artistically, did you notice in the characters? What other major character changes did you notice between parts I and II?

10. As a reader, did you enjoy learning about various characters through their tarot reading? Why or why not? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way?

11. In the end, do you feel it was fate that decided the outcomes of these characters or was it from the choices they made and challenges they faced?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. “When Remedios awoke the next morning to the scent of baking bread, for a moment—and how disorienting this was—she thought her father would knock on the door and tell her to get dressed, that they were going to visit one of the aqueducts he designed. The clear quality of the bright midday light took her right back to her childhood in Catalonia” (pg. 37). As a native-born refugee, do you think Remedios is remembering her childhood with her father because it is one of the few moments she felt at home, safe and cared for without needing to be on constant high alert?

2. “The seller turned to Remedios. ‘Buy what you wish, mademoiselle. No need to wait for someone to give you what you need. You must acquire your tools for yourself. You are the agent of your destiny’ ” (pg. 5). What early lesson was the vendor teaching Remedios and Leonora? Do you think these words stuck with Remedios specifically, as she continued her journey through tarot? How might this lesson have helped Leonora regain strength down the line?

3. The author ends the novel with a tarot reading of our main character, Remedios Varo (pg. 248). After all you have experienced from the novel, what do you believe the significance of The World card is? Did you foresee a separate reading for Remedios?

A Conversation with Claire McMillan

Q: Where did your inspiration for Alchemy of a Blackbird come from?

A: Viewing Remedios Varo’s painting, The Call, which hangs in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, was an alchemical experience for me in that it shifted something inside me. I’ve never had an experience like it. Remedios and Leonora sometimes alluded to their paintings being spells, and I’m pretty sure I felt that. I had to know all about the person who painted this portal. I started reading about Remedios and Leonora with no intention of writing about them. I was halfway through a draft of another novel. As I read more about Remedios, I set the half-finished book aside and knew I had to write about her life.

Q: Historical fiction can often be influenced by art, so making the decision to include tarot is a unique approach to the genre. Where did you get the idea to intertwine art and history with tarot? How did you know which tarot lessons to give to the characters?

A: I’d been studying and using the tarot for about ten years and had no idea that it would show up in my work. I was drawn to the tarot as a tool for self-reflection and self-discovery and solely for my personal use. As I became more interested in it, friends started asking me for readings. I don’t have a calling to be a professional reader, but it is always an honor and an intimate trust exercise to read the cards for someone you’re close to. Some may say that reading for someone you know effects the reading negatively as one is less “objective.” But my late teacher Rachel Pollak used to say that reading for someone close to you is the very best way to use tarot cards as you can bring all your knowledge to the reading which adds great depth of insight and understanding.

As I was researching Varo’s life and learning how inspired by the tarot she was, my own interest in the tarot gradually dovetailed with what I was reading and everything came together.

In writing the tarot definitions for the third-person characters, I wrote each character’s chapter first because I wanted to make sure that their voice and perspective moved the plot forward and added to the reader’s ability to enter into the dream of the book. Once I’d done that, I went back and chose the tarot card that I thought best represented the arc, or the theme, or the point of view of that character. I also wanted to show, perhaps, my approach to the tarot and how it can offer insight. For me, it’s less about predicting the future and more about what can be personally considered or embodied in this moment that will offer aid or clarity.

Q: Is there anything you learned from your research that you wish could have made it into the book?

A: I kept trying to put in the book Varo’s continuing relationships with her ex-husbands and lovers. It seems that once she loved someone, she never really stopped, and she had a talent for keeping people close to her. I deleted her first husband, Gerardo Lizarraga, out of the story entirely. She married him in art school, mostly to get away from her family. She started her affair with Benjamin, and her marriage split up. But Gerardo separately came to Mexico City as a Spanish refugee where he eventually remarried and had children who Remedios was very close to. Gerardo and Remedios were lifelong friends, and he was never really out of her life. Similarly, she and the painter Victor Brauner were lovers for a time while she was with Benjamin, and they all remained close friends. Remedios went back to Paris only once, and it was to see Benjamin before he died and say good bye to him. Even after she came back from Venezuela with Jean Nicolle and broke up with him, they remained friends until the end of her life. Of Jean she actually articulated that had she stayed with him, she would not have become the painter she was. I was fascinated by that decision to leave him in favor of her art. Yet friendship and love remained between them, so much so that when Jean was sick and in need of surgery it was Remedios and Walter Gruen who paid his hospital bills. In part I think this is because the European ex-pat community in Mexico City at the time was incredibly close knit, like a family, as they’d had to leave their extended families and networks behind. They had to be each other’s networks. In part I think it was because it was a very bohemian group of artists and thinkers who wanted to buck convention. And in part I think it is a testament to Varo’s big heartedness and charm that she could maintain these relationships.

However, every time I tried to include all this, the story morphed into one about Remedios in relation to the men in her life. My goal in writing the book was to keep the focus very squarely on Remedios and Leonora and their friendship and art. Each time I’d draft in these complicated relationships with men, it overwhelmed the story and changed the focus. I decided to focus on what felt to me like the major romantic relationships in her life, and leave the others to the side. I wish I’d had the skill enough to get them in there without it looming over everything else.

Q: Do you have a favorite tarot card? And if so, what makes it your favorite?

A: It would be hard to name a favorite card. A renowned tarot teacher once said, tarot is never “to you” but “for you.” In that way all cards have something beautiful to offer. A card I’ve learned to greet with equanimity that others might tense up around is the nine of swords. It depicts a person waking up in bed with their head in their hands while nine swords hang over their head. When I first started working with tarot I would tense up when this card appeared, convinced some nightmare would befall me that day. It never happened. Invariably, for me, the nine of swords is about getting lost in what a spiritual friend calls brain loops. When you’re looping through old stories, old patterns, telling yourself catastrophic predictions, really walking around in a horrible dream. One hundred percent of the time those stories aren’t true or don’t come true. Usually during the day something will happen to show me I’m making up a story in my head. So now, when the nine of swords comes up it’s like a gentle reminder that things might come up that day that might throw me into old nightmare stories and loops. If I can remember the nine of swords, it helps me become aware of the loops and release myself out of them more quickly.

But I think all the cards in the Smith Rider deck let us enter into stories. Every card depicts a little scene, usually filled with action. For a storyteller, that’s compelling. My dearest friend once said to me, “Everything’s a story for you.” It’s no surprise I was drawn to the tarot where every card illustrates a little scenario and you and your intuition and the universe create the story of what that means.

Q: This story is mostly told through the fictionalized account of real life artist Remedios Varo. Why did you make the decision to tell the story largely through this point of view? Do you think you will write something through the lens of Leonora Carrington?

A: In researching Varo’s life I became enamored with her as a person, a seeker, and an artist. I was lucky that during the writing of this book Margaret Carson’s translation of Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings was released and I got to know her voice even more intimately. I knew very early on that I wanted to tell the story through her point of view. I felt very called to her. As of now, I don’t foresee writing from Leonora’s point of view.

Q: In addition to creating vibrant characters and rich dialogue, your novel is full of gorgeous imagery that helps a reader envision each scene with ease. How did you create these spaces in such detail?

A: First of all, thank you for saying that. With my last two novels I really started with place and setting and with this one I didn’t. So I wanted to make sure place came alive for the reader without overwhelming the pacing. That’s always the trick, giving enough detail that one can see a scene but not so much that the story is dulled. It’s a tricky dance with research. One is reading and gathering all these great nuggets, such as there really was a zinc swan’s neck bathtub in the Vila Air-Bel or that Remedios really did leave cheese for the mice in the holes of the floorboards of their Mexican apartment. These are details that I know I’m going to use as they’re so evocative. Research is one of the joys of writing something like this, but it can also be a pitfall. One can go on and on researching and never get to the writing. Or, once one decides to write you have so many little treasures that you want to pack in that the story gets lost. I constantly remind myself that good storytelling is about the characters and their emotional journey. That’s the primary thing. The rest of it is just pretty set dressing and using that to serve verisimilitude and add realness to the story. Doing that successfully is a matter of judgment and weighing whether you’re writing historical fiction or science fiction.

Q: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new? If you are, what can you tell us about it?

A: Yes, I’m drafting a new novel. I avoid talking about new work because, for me, it lets all the energy out of it. I will say I was sad to leave the world of the spiritual, and the new book will involve some esoteric and occult aspects.

About The Author

Photograph by Molly Nook

Claire McMillan is the author of Alchemy of a Blackbird, Gilded Age, and The Necklace. She was the 2017–2018 Cuyahoga County Writer-in-Residence and currently serves as a member of the board of trustees of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She grew up in Pasadena, California, and now lives on her husband’s family farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio, with their two children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (July 11, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668006559

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Raves and Reviews

"Each chapter in this entrancing, vivid, and lushly illuminating novel begins with a tarot card that introduces the next narrator in a scintillating cast of actual and imagined characters offering distinct perspectives on Remedios and her profoundly inspired artistic and spiritual quest."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"McMillan chronicles the artistic evolution of surrealist painter Remedios Varo in her enchanting and intricately crafted latest...This superb exploration of survival and transformation will have special appeal to those interested in art, mysticism, and women’s lives."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Full of stunning detail about historical tarot practices, the Surrealist movement’s treatment of women creatives, and the thriving artistic and intellectual community in postwar Mexico, McMillan’s novel tells of two real-life artists seeking to create despite being stifled by societal norms surrounding gender and class. McMillan’s inclusion of tarot-card illustrations and her pairing of characters with certain cards gives the characters further development."Library Journal, starred review

"Claire McMillan has conjured an utterly immersive and inspiring story of the deep friendship between Surrealist artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Alchemy of a Blackbird is an inventive, inspiring, and absorbing novel about the magic that happens when women follow their creative passions and cast off the roles—and the men—that have held them back." —Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light

“A dazzling kaleidoscope of surrealist voices animates this beguiling novel of artistic ambition, perseverance, and friendship. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War's great artistic exodus, Alchemy of A Blackbird insists on the essential role art plays in the lives of its two dynamic female protagonists—Lenora Carrington and Remedios Varos. McMillan transports us to the magical, uncanny world of the Surrealists by deftly using tarot--a practice vital to the art of both Carrington and Varos—to shape her narrative in unexpectedly dramatic and evocative ways. I wanted to linger along the French Riviera and get a coffee in Veracruz, Mexico with her incredible ensemble cast of characters. And maybe, if I was lucky, have them offer me a tarot spread, too." —Katy Hays, author of The Cloisters

"Alchemy of a Blackbird is enigmatic, inventive, and rich with love and longing, art and magic. A story told in the captivating voices of artists and their patrons, the novel explores fascinating lives in a state of profound upheaval, making for irresistible drama as the characters travel the world in search of beauty and peace." —Timothy Schaffert, author of The Perfume Thief

"Claire Macmillan's clever, inventive take on the historical novel tells the story of the surrealist painter Remedios Varos's journey to becoming a remarkable artist - how the friendships, twists, joys and pains of her life, when pressed together, turned her art into gold." —Miranda Cowley Heller, New York Times bestselling author of The Paper Palace

"A chorus of fascinating voices, including the mystical and wise voice of the tarot, guides us through this powerful and immersive novel. Claire McMillan asks the most important questions about our lives and answers them with a book about the enigmatic alchemy of art, the transformative power of friendship, the mystery of unseen guidance, and the deep wounds and healing aspects of love. Alchemy of a Blackbird is an unforgettable adventure, and one you don’t want to miss: I loved it." —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Book of Flora Lea

"Each chapter in this entrancing, vivid, and lushly illuminating novel begins with a tarot card that introduces the next narrator in a scintillating cast of actual and imagined characters offering distinct perspectives on Remedios and her profoundly inspired artistic and spiritual quest."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"McMillan chronicles the artistic evolution of surrealist painter Remedios Varo in her enchanting and intricately crafted latest...This superb exploration of survival and transformation will have special appeal to those interested in art, mysticism, and women’s lives."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Full of stunning detail about historical tarot practices, the Surrealist movement’s treatment of women creatives, and the thriving artistic and intellectual community in postwar Mexico, McMillan’s novel tells of two real-life artists seeking to create despite being stifled by societal norms surrounding gender and class. McMillan’s inclusion of tarot-card illustrations and her pairing of characters with certain cards gives the characters further development."Library Journal, starred review

"Claire McMillan has conjured an utterly immersive and inspiring story of the deep friendship between Surrealist artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Alchemy of a Blackbird is an inventive, inspiring, and absorbing novel about the magic that happens when women follow their creative passions and cast off the roles—and the men—that have held them back." —Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light

“A dazzling kaleidoscope of surrealist voices animates this beguiling novel of artistic ambition, perseverance, and friendship. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War's great artistic exodus, Alchemy of A Blackbird insists on the essential role art plays in the lives of its two dynamic female protagonists—Lenora Carrington and Remedios Varos. McMillan transports us to the magical, uncanny world of the Surrealists by deftly using tarot--a practice vital to the art of both Carrington and Varos—to shape her narrative in unexpectedly dramatic and evocative ways. I wanted to linger along the French Riviera and get a coffee in Veracruz, Mexico with her incredible ensemble cast of characters. And maybe, if I was lucky, have them offer me a tarot spread, too." —Katy Hays, author of The Cloisters

"Alchemy of a Blackbird is enigmatic, inventive, and rich with love and longing, art and magic. A story told in the captivating voices of artists and their patrons, the novel explores fascinating lives in a state of profound upheaval, making for irresistible drama as the characters travel the world in search of beauty and peace." —Timothy Schaffert, author of The Perfume Thief

"Claire Macmillan's clever, inventive take on the historical novel tells the story of the surrealist painter Remedios Varos's journey to becoming a remarkable artist - how the friendships, twists, joys and pains of her life, when pressed together, turned her art into gold." —Miranda Cowley Heller, New York Times bestselling author of The Paper Palace

"A chorus of fascinating voices, including the mystical and wise voice of the tarot, guides us through this powerful and immersive novel. Claire McMillan asks the most important questions about our lives and answers them with a book about the enigmatic alchemy of art, the transformative power of friendship, the mystery of unseen guidance, and the deep wounds and healing aspects of love. Alchemy of a Blackbird is an unforgettable adventure, and one you don’t want to miss: I loved it." —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Book of Flora Lea

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