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Briefly, A Delicious Life

A Novel

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About The Book

*A Cosmopolitan Best Book of Summer * One of BuzzFeed’s Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books*

An “exquisite…too lovely to bear” (The New York Times Book Review) debut novel from an award-winning writer: a playful and daring tale about a teenage ghost who falls in love with the writer George Sands.

In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants.

Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—a teenage ghost pining for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, 19th-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involved an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training).

Charming, original, and emotionally moving, this “deeply wild debut follows the unconventional love triangle” (Cosmopolitan) between George, Chopin, and Blanca—a gorgeous and surprising exploration of artistry, desire, and life after death.

Excerpt

1. Two Men Kissing TWO MEN KISSING
Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen two men kissing. It was 1838 and I had been at the Charterhouse in Valldemossa for over three centuries by then. I had seen hundreds of monks arrive, kiss each other, and die, but still, the sight of these two stopped me in my tracks.

The men—slight bodies, bony, both very short, standing amongst rotting pomegranates and flies in the overgrown garden of one of the abandoned cells—were gripping each other’s faces, hands like masks. There was a smell of fermentation rising from the ground, and it gave the scene—the lovers, the kiss—a fizzy, too-hot quality. Sweat had worked its way through the shirt and jacket of the smaller one, spreading darkly between his shoulder blades. (It was November but still warm; the weather had yet to turn.)

The taller man trailed his fingers along the other’s neck, and let them drape over his shoulder. The hand was very pale, as though it rarely saw the sun, and surprisingly broad below a narrow, snappable wrist. Fine bones pressed against the skin, splayed like a wing; thick muscle curved around the base of the thumb. The fingers looked heavy, the way they hung, faintly blue, from rounded knuckles.

A bird startled in the tree above them and flew off, dislodging a little flurry of feathers and leaves, and both men looked up as though expecting bad news.

Three hundred years earlier, I’d seen Brother Tomás with Brother Mateo in that very same garden, beard crushing against beard and the clatter of rosary beads hitting the paving stones. A decade or so after that, there was the boy from the village who sold bad oranges with the boy in the kitchens who made bad preserves. Around the turn of the sixteenth century there was a complex triangulation amongst Brothers Augustin, Miguel, and Simón. And so on, over the years: countless combinations, differing ages, differing levels of urgency and tenderness, but always more or less the same, the kissing and gripping and so often the very same skittishness, the entirely justified fear of being found out, the creeping sensation that they were being watched.

The point is: I was used to seeing habits fall from shoulders, formations of body hair on chests, backs, buttocks, et cetera. I enjoyed it. It was comforting. These, after all, were not the sort of men I worried about. It was the others, the ones who had fewer secrets, that kept me on my toes.

What surprised me was the presence of these lovers in the garden at all. There had been no monks at the Charterhouse since the government seized it from the Church three years before and sent them all away. The eviction happened quickly: the news, the tears, the goodbye kisses. There was a scramble for possessions they were not strictly supposed to have, and certainly not supposed to care about. Candlesticks stuffed into sacks. Gold crucifixes protruding from the folds of skirts. And then they clinked and clattered off down the hill, and I was left alone. Even the priest, Father Guillem, found the dead atmosphere oppressive. He moved to a house on the opposite side of the square.

I had thought—so funny with hindsight—that perhaps I wasn’t needed there anymore. I began to think of moving on, started to fantasize about taking some rooms in the center of Palma, nothing too elaborate, just a vantage point from which I could watch the city happen. I hadn’t spent much time away from Valldemossa, the small hillside village where I was born, and the idea of trying my luck in the city was alluring. New smells, new people to worry about and dodge and look out for. But then a sacristan was hired to take care of the Charterhouse in the absence of the monks, and as he swaggered around the place swinging his keys, as he napped in the monks’ deserted cots, snoring and smacking his lips in his sleep, as he sold off all the silverware, and then all the gold, as his hands grabbed more and more things that were not his to grab, it became apparent I would have to stay on a little longer to keep an eye on him. In the quiet of the early mornings, I waited for the sound of his heavy footsteps on the tiles. Over time it came less frequently, as the novelty of the job wore off for the Sacristan. Still, I stayed. I was quiet and watchful, became invested in the comings and goings of lizards. I took up bird-watching. Sometimes I threw things. I waited, just in case.

That morning, I had gone into the garden to try my hand at swatting fruit from the branches of one of the taller trees, and after that to sneak up on the starlings and howl, which would send them into the air together like a single giant bird. I had it all planned out and was not prepared, not prepared at all, to come across unfamiliar, uninvited lovers.

Eventually, they stepped back from one another. The smaller one readjusted his jacket and turned his head to the side. My first view of his face: plump lips, dark eyes, long lashes, and glossy black curls pinned back. Cheeks pink in the heat. Sweat on the temples.

Which was when I realized that it was not a man after all. It was a woman dressed as a man.

Which was the second great surprise of my morning.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for BRIEFLY, A DELICIOUS LIFE includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club. 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

In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frédéric Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants.

Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—the impossible love of a teenage ghost for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally, on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, nineteenth-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involve an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training). Charming, original, and surprisingly touching, Briefly, A Delicious Life is a powerful story about romantic fixation and a meditation on creativity.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the author’s choice to use real-life historical figures George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. How does this decision change your reading experience? What would differ had the characters been entirely fictional?

2. Blanca’s ability to affect the world around her is limited and often depends on the strength of her emotional state. The stronger her feelings, the more impactful her influence. What is the significance of her powers operating this way? What does this say about the importance of one’s emotions?

3. Rediscovering sexual desire is a big theme throughout the novel. In what ways do George’s and Blanca’s first sexual encounters differ from their experiences of queer sexual desire later in life? Consider the difference between the way Blanca describes her actual sexual experiences with Ham and her sexual fantasies with George. What do you make of the difference in intensity of these experiences?

4. Blanca often meditates on the concept of falling in love. She thinks, “George, I came to see, was a person who fell in love easily, and people who fall in love easily are easy to fall in love with” (page 62). Do you agree with this concept? Why or why not?

5. As a ghost, Blanca is able to inhabit others’ bodies and experience their sensations, hear their thoughts, witness their dreams and memories, and even see their futures, making her a near-omniscient narrator. Discuss the author’s choice to give Blanca these powers. How would the story differ if Blanca’s powers were more limited in scope?

6. George and her family clash with the villagers several times throughout the novel. Did you sympathize with one group over the other? What grievances did you feel were justified? Do you think a resolution could have been reached?

7. Though Blanca is attracted to George partly because of the way she dresses, she is still appalled when George goes into the village in a suit. How do the villagers react to the way George presents herself, as opposed to her friends in Paris?

8. The piano, or rather the lack of a proper piano, is a problem for the majority of the novel. What importance does this issue hold for the different characters? How does this add to the tension in the characters’ relationships, and what does the piano represent for each of them?

9. George often finds the demands of motherhood to be at odds with her writing career and ambitions. How do you think this affected her and her children? Discuss the difference between her relationships with Maurice and Solange and how those relationships change over the course of the novel.

10. As things grow more difficult in Mallorca, George becomes exhausted. She wonders, “What am I to make of life?” reminding Blanca of her own struggle to rationalize her existence after death. How does each character make sense of these existential questions?

11. Eventually, the reader learns that Blanca is not bound to Mallorca, despite having died there and remained there, as a ghost, for hundreds of years. If you were in her shoes, what would you have done? What did you make of Blanca’s decision at the end of the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Look again at the chapters titled after Chopin’s compositions: “Prelude No. 11 in B Major, Vivace,” “Prelude No. 4 in E Minor, Largo,” “Prelude No. 9 in E Major, Largo,” etc. Find and play these pieces while you discuss the novel.

2. Read George Sand’s memoir A Winter in Majorca, which recounts the details of her trip with Chopin and her two children. How does she describe Mallorca? What do you make of Stevens’s adaptation of Sand’s experiences?

3. Read Nell Stevens’s two earlier works of nonfiction: Bleaker House and The Victorian and the Romantic. To learn more about the author, go to her website, www.nellstevens.com.

About The Author

Photograph by Matt Smith

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 GuardianGranta, and elsewhere. Nell is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 19, 2022)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982190941

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Raves and Reviews

A Financial Times Best Book of the Year
One of Buzzfeed's Highly Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books

"An exquisite debut novel ... imbued with reverence for small moments; Blanca describes her love for George as finding a detail as insignificant as a hangnail “entirely overwhelming, too lovely to bear” … Blanca’s story is much the same — overwhelming, too lovely to bear… I confess: I cried.”
—The New York Times Book Review

"Set in 19th-century Mallorca, this deeply wild debut follows the unconventional love triangle that unfolds between real-life French novelist George Sand, her lover Frédéric Chopin, and the teenage ghost who died over 400 years earlier and pines after George from afar."
Cosmopolitan, Best Books of the Summer

“Provocative, enticing, visceral, this debut novel is emotionally true.”
Toronto Star

"Stevens is brilliant at describing desire."
Guardian

"Deeply enjoyable, guileful."
Telegraph

"Truly original . . . brilliant."
The Herald

"A teenage ghost falls in love with a writer who doesn’t know she exists in this playful, otherworldly debut novel."
Stylist

"A gorgeous, wildly seductive novel, shimmering with intelligence, humor and joy. I adored this book."
—Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests

"We know we are curious about the dead, but imagine a life lived so vibrantly as to make the dead curious about us. Nell Stevens brings a reader into the strange and brilliant artistic exile of George Sand, writing this tender story with tremendous heart and daring. Here, reader, are the low-lying truths of love, art and time."
—Samantha Hunt, author of The Unwritten Book and The Dark Dark

“A haunting, dazzling tale of all the good stuff: love, sex, music, literature, death, and what happens after. Nell Stevens is a beautiful writer.”
—Melissa Broder, author of Milk Fed

"A luscious, multi-sensory bewitchment of a book — Stevens’ writing rings with wit and surprise."
—Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Mercies

"This electrifyingly beautiful, exhilaratingly clever book is Nell Stevens' best to date, and categorically the most gorgeous first novel I've read in years. It's rare that I come across historical fiction so sensual, so original, so intelligent, and so brimming with love."
—Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

"I found myself floored by Nell Stevens' mastery with language, by her deep understanding of the human spirit, by the astonishing freshness of this historical novel. Briefly, A Delicious Life is a shining work of art and Nell Stevens is an original, whose touch is as deft as it is masterful."
—Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory

"A novel of tremulous beauty, sly wit and deep understanding, Briefly, A Delicious Life is an addictive, sunlit delight."
—Stuart Evers, author of The Blind Light

"A luminous, beguiling exploration of creativity and love."
—Alice Albinia, author of Cwen

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