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Alchemy of a blackbird : a novel
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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. Excerpted from Alchemy of a Blackbird: A Novel by Claire McMillan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Remedios Varo (Female), Painter, Gifted, Struggles with committing to her work;deep fascination with tarot;reunited with Leonora;tap into their creativity
Artistic struggles
Tarot readings
Female friendship
Paris, France - Europe
- Mexico
Time Period
1939 -- 20th century
Large Cover Image
Trade Reviews
Library Journal Review
McMillan's (Gilded Age) latest details the life of Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo and her decades-spanning friendship with fellow artist Leonora Carrington, as well as the artists' mutual interest in occultism and tarot. At its start, Remedios is living in Paris in 1939, a dangerous time, and is forced to flee to the countryside after the Nazi invasion of France. Reunited there with her older lover, Benjamin Péret, she learns about tarot reading and foraging from women she meets. When they're forced to leave France entirely, Remedios and Benjamin travel to Mexico, where Remedios's friend Leonora has also fled. Together again, the two women tap into their creative energies through learning about and creating their own occult practices. 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. VERDICT Readers of historical fiction and those who are interested in women's roles in art and occultism will enjoy.--Tristan Draper
Publishers Weekly Review
McMillan (Gilded Age) chronicles the artistic evolution of surrealist painter Remedios Varo in her enchanting and intricately crafted latest. In October 1939, Varo is living in Paris with her lover, the poet Benjamin Péret. Some in Péret's circle doubt Varo's gifts and she struggles with committing to her work, but her deepening fascination with tarot and her close friend and fellow painter Leonora Carrington provide support. Though Varo and Péret find safety in Mexico City after the Germans invade France, she remains creatively blocked. When Carrington moves to the city and the two friends are reunited, they regularly discuss tarot, alchemy, and dreams, their meetings a "cauldron of creativity" that ignite Varo's long-suppressed talents. Chapters focused on Varo's activities alternate with segments on other figures famous and invented, in a combination that brilliantly captures the complexity of Varo's personality and era. McMillan's expertly nuanced yet accessible references to tarot card archetypes add further richness--the Two of Cups represents for Varo a kindred spirit that can heal "neglected parts of the self" and "bring union and wholeness to the forefront." This superb exploration of survival and transformation will have special appeal to those interested in art, mysticism, and women's lives. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan, Elizabeth Kaplan Literary. (July)
Booklist Review
Leonora and Remedios are striking and audacious young women artists in Paris in 1939, one in flight from her wealthy, conservative British parents, the other a Spanish Mexican artist supporting herself and her older lover, the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, as an art forger. Both become intrigued by the tarot as WWII shatters their lives. The too-little-known real-life painter Remedios Varo appears in Michaela Carter's Leonora in the Morning (2021), the story of the somewhat more recognized Leonora Carrington; McMillan makes Remedios the star in this inventive and mesmerizing tale of war, exile, mysticism, and creativity. When Remedios and Benjamin find sanctuary in Marseille with other imperiled artists and their benefactor, Peggy Guggenheim, Remedios deepens her tarot studies and puts her forgery skills to more crucial use. They finally escape to Mexico, where Remedios transmutes trauma into art and liberation. 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.
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.
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