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.
Exquisite ... Though the novel’s most obvious selling point is its reimagining of Chopin and George’s brief and disastrous time on Mallorca, Blanca is the story’s heart. She’s a charming, witty character whose vulnerability and occasional gloom make her an irresistible narrator. ... The story of Blanca’s life unfurls alongside the story of her death, and the tragedy that kills her collides spectacularly with the strange new hope she discovers amid the wreckage of the monastery at the novel’s end. I confess: I cried. The entire novel is imbued with reverence for small moments ... Overwhelming, too lovely to bear.
Stevens is brilliant at describing desire ... Employing an impossible narrator is one way to sidestep the pedantry that historical fiction can fall into. Nevertheless it’s jarring when Blanca describes herself as 'neurotic', and it’s unclear why she is not surrounded by other ghosts. Stevens is not a writer who worries about mechanics and fidelity to the historical account. Instead, she follows the story and what matters to the characters in it ... Much more than Stevens’s previous books, her novel makes space for the uncelebrated labour on which creativity depends ... Amélie the maid’s daily trials with this depressed animal are a subplot more striking than the composer’s familiar turmoil and bloody phlegm. With skill and insight, the novel follows Sand’s struggle to keep hold of her children, her romantic attachments, and her work, and shows that Chopin never faced the same difficult choices. It is telling that the gloves that protect the composer’s delicate fingers are made of kid.
... a curious mashup of historical fiction, a ghost story, and a queer love story ... 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 ... Whether writing about an angry mob or a frustrated teenager, Stevens excels at conveying extreme emotions, including physical longing and desire ... 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 ... 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.