Author: Lois Leveen
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 14th Century / Verona / Italy / Inspired by Shakespeare / Mother/Daughter Relationships / Tragedy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Emily Bestler Books/Atria (9/2014)
Source: Italy Book Tours
Rating: Liked very much.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The story of Shakespeare's famed Juliet and her tragic love are told by her beloved wetnurse.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss
Do I like the cover?: I do.
I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Laurel Corona, Nicole Galland
First line: Two nights before Lammas Eve, I go to bed believing myself fat and happy.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.
Why did I get this book?: I really enjoyed Leveen's previous novel, and I love literary retellings.
Review: I love books that take on familiar stories from unique angles, and those that explore Shakespeare are particular favorites. (If you haven't yet read Nicole Galland's I, Iago, get it now!)
In this, Leveen (author of the fabulous The Secrets of Mary Bowser) takes Shakespeare's familiar Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story from Juliet's devoted wetnurse Angelica. To my surprise, the first half of the novel is devoted to Juliet's infancy (a time not covered in Shakespeare's play) and establishes Angelica's background and her love for Juliet.
The second half of the novel explores the events in Shakespeare's play. I have to admit that of all his works, Romeo and Juliet is among my least favorite: I never really got the passion our teenaged stars had. But in Leveen's hands, the cultural context of life in medieval Verona makes their choices suddenly real for me (this is why I love a good novel! I understand more!).
Rich in detail about life in medieval Italy, this is also the story of love between a parent and child, even if the parent is really a wetnurse. Leveen articulates the joy and agony of raising a child that isn't one's own, and the impact on life for a woman who is committed to being a wetnurse. It was eye-opening and fascinating, the mix of being a household domestic and a loving guardian, and being so close to my due date (three weeks today!), the heavy focus on childbirth, mothering, and nursing was particular resonant.
Leveen's narrative style is readable: Angelica is earthy and grounded, plain-spoken, yet Leveen keeps Shakespeare's poetic flare in the dialogue, especially wild, lovable Tybalt and in Angelica's poetic ruminations. The Elizabethan appreciation of the bawdy is seen in Angelica's earthy passion for her husband.
An excerpt is available at the author's website as well as a teacher's guide.
Whether one is familiar with Romeo and Juliet or simply interested in a novel of life in medieval Italy, this is a quick read that focuses both on a domestic relationship and an emotional one, the love between a caregiver and child.
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