Nell Stevens’ debut novel “Briely, A Delicious Life” is undeniably imaginative, but a cornucopia of creativity can’t outweigh several large-scale drawbacks. After several best-selling short stories and memoirs, Stevens’ novel is definitely making a splash — or at least trying to. The historical fiction lesbian romance ghost story bites off more than it can chew and ultimately fails to do anything successfully. The plot is somehow winding and stagnant at the same time, the characters have little development, the narrator’s adolescence makes the narrative juvenile, and the historical component reads like an almost forgotten interlude. The concept is convincing but would have been better suited for a short story.
The biggest problem with this book is that it just tries to do too much at once. The premise – even the version summarized on the back cover – is complex and somewhat absurd: a 14-year-old 15th-century ghost, Blanca, haunts an abandoned monastery on the small Spanish island of Majorca and, 400 years after her death, falls in love with one of the living residents of the monastery. The object of Blanca’s affection just so happens to be one of the most notable writers of the Romantic era, George Sands, who is accompanied by his two children and his lover Frederic Chopin. The book follows several storylines and lines of thought: the story of Blanca’s life and death, her undead existence before George, her exploration of her sexuality, the current state of affairs at the monastery, and the life of George before and after the monastery.
For most of the book there is a somewhat consistent cadence of alternating between Blanca’s past, present and George’s past, but about 80% of the way through the book there is an awkward interlude and awkward where Blanca is supposed to “watch” George and his family’s future and share it with the reader. This section gives the impression that Stevens has forgotten that these characters are based on fact and has written a lengthy, somewhat artistic synopsis of information available on George Sands’ Wikipedia page to put this book back on its historical fiction track.
And this addition to Wikipedia near the end of the book is the beginning of a disappointing conclusion to the novel. Because Stevens begins to lean heavily on the lives of the real characters, the book ends as anyone, as much as Googled Sands, would expect – the ending follows the real lives of its characters so closely that it looks unoriginal. Not only was this ending disappointing, but it also feels lazy, as if Stevens is panting after a whirlwind of the first 220 pages and just can’t think of a faster way to wrap the book up.
Not only does the real life of Stevens’ characters serve as a crutch, but it also creates a serious obstacle to the novel’s scope. Because the narrator is a ghost, there is little that can happen between Bianca and her living companions. And because Stevens sticks relatively tightly to the real-life course of his characters, his creativity has little room to roam. Stevens spends most of his time telling readers what his characters do, rather than showing us who his characters become, which ultimately results in the characters becoming nothing at all. With these two firm constraints on the scope of the book, the novel ends up being a collection of short episodes or adventures glued together by light adolescent commentary and humor.
In terms of writing, Stevens captures the voice of his narrator very well. But that ends up being part of the problem. The voice and personality that Stevens imparts to his narrator makes the prose read look juvenile, and the attempt to make the narrator sound casual and familiar to the reader ends up feeling like unnecessary “plush.”
The book does, however, have some successful elements. Stevens has a strong sense of the absurd, used in a way that can be effective, and the reality she creates, in terms of Blanca’s abilities and experience as a ghost, is entertaining. The content of this book could have been a successful short story, and the writing could have made for an impressive young adult novel, but together the plot and the writing make this adult novel feel youthful and entertaining.
—Editor Kelsey S. Mann can be reached at [email protected]