Despite finding success and fame, Julien Dubois, a pianist, is haunted by a past filled with crippling insecurities and overwhelming jealousy in this graphic novel. A collaboration between the writing of Filipe Melo and the art of Juan Cavia, Ballad for Sophie tells the story of a man who, in his old age, is still chasing the demons of his past.
The story starts in 1997, with Adeline, a young journalist who is visiting the estate of a reclusive world-renowned pianist for an interview. She is initially thrown out and denied an interview. Julien eventually agrees to speak with Adeline when she recognizes the sound of François Samson coming from the record player. Julien wants to set the record straight: it was François Samson who was the greatest piano player to ever live, not Julien, who spent his career mired in envy chasing the talent of François.
Julien studied the piano relentlessly and from a young age was exceptional at playing the notes on the page before him with few or no mistakes. In a contest for children, Julien is sure to win, until another young boy comes to the stage to compete. He is poor and self-taught. Julien, along with everyone else, thinks his entrance in this contest is futile—that is, until he begins to play. His technical precision is impeccable, but his music soars beyond basic execution, with art and weight that leaves all who listen in awe.
Despite the obvious talent of François, it is Julien who wins this contest, after his mother bribes the judges. But Julien knows who should have won, and he spends the rest of his career in a smoky haze of jealousy.
Julien’s interview with Adeline stretches into days. She is invited to stay in the house and they form a friendship. We see an old man who has humor and generosity, in sharp contrast to the pain he shows when discussing the past and the isolation he shares from his memories. The story spans decades of Julien’s life, from his childhood to his years as a young adult in Paris during the Nazi occupation, then through his dark and isolating fame, all told from the memories of an old man who sees himself as a fraud and a villain.
Melo’s story on its own is phenomenal, brilliantly exploring the trappings of fame and extreme dedication. There is little happiness when we look into the past, and the happiness that any of the characters are able to find is tainted by envy and trauma. But in the end, the story of this man and the people in his life is not depressing. Despite the pain from the past, during the interview there is ultimately a sense of untainted belonging and peace in his life.
As with the best books or stories told in collaboration between words and art, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The art by Cavia is beautifully rendered. The colors, lines, and shapes mirror the mood of each scene and character. Most notably, plumes of smoke filter throughout the memories, a motif that underscores the dark pain, anger, and envy in Julien’s past. Cavia also expertly uses parallel panels to emphasize comparisons between the present and the past or between characters in the story.
Adults are the intended audience for this title, and I whole-heartedly recommend it for adult graphic novel collections. Historical fiction is not always a popular graphic novel genre, but this is truly a beautiful book. I will definitely purchase it for my high school collection. I know I will be able to find students and teachers who adore it as much as I do.
The title, The Ballad for Sophie, refers to a song Julien wrote at the end of his life, the only music he ever wrote, despite his fame as a pianist. The novel’s author, Melo, is a trained pianist himself and composed the ballad to accompany the story. The sheet music is included at the end of the book, or you can listen to the theme here.
Ballad for Sophie
By Filipe Melo
Art by Juan Cavia
Top Shelf Productions, 2021
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Portuguese