cover image Alchemy of a Blackbird

Alchemy of a Blackbird

Claire McMillan. Atria, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-66800-655-9

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)