Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Mistress Shakespeare: A Novel

Mistress Shakespeare: A Novel
Mistress Shakespeare: A Novel by Karen Harper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Karen Harper set herself a challenging task: to balance the historical record of who William Shakespeare was with her speculation about a second Anne in his life, the Anne Whately who may have been a typo, but who Harper posits as a real person. Also, she had to write a story about Shakespeare without the connection to his writings feeling contrived or too neatly wrapped up. Third, she had to depict about 50 years in time without it feeling like a summary. In the second and third tasks, I feel she succeeded, though only just. In the first, I can only comment on the things that stood out to me.

I am no Shakespeare scholar, but I'm well aware that Shakespeare wasn't appreciated in his time. He was successful, which was why his plays survived, but he was far more looked down on than this novel suggests. I understand why Anne might gush on and on about his "genius," but that no one rolls his eyes at her irked me. In retrospect, we see his genius, but people of his time didn't all embrace him, and that glossing-over bothered me.

The idea of a writer gaining inspiration or coming up with character traits or lines felt true to me. Most writers will describe taking just bits and pieces of real life to put into their writing, and never cleaving anything off to shove in whole. So that the Will Shakespeare of this novel commented on only finding inspiration from his Anne and his personal trials felt real enough, and that it gave the author wiggle room to keep from having to write out his play's plots scene by scene probably helped free up a lot of the narrative. Still, there were times when the inspiration felt a bit pat, or like the inspiration was shoehorned in.

The timeline often confused me, though that may have been the fault of the audiobook. Maybe the text has some white space between events and timeskips. But it would seem to me, listening to the audio version, that one minute they'd be talking or arguing, and the next it would be five years later. Due to the timeline, I was often curious why one event or another would stick out in Anne's mind, and then weeks, months, or years would pass before anything more stuck out to her. Often, the events seemed like they weren't particularly memorable. Also, Anne often promises things about upcoming scenes that she fails to deliver. She apologizes for the upcoming scene of the first time she meets Will Shakespeare, but it seemed quite memorable for meeting the love of one's life, to me. She promises that the next time she sees her Will, she's much changed, but I never detected any difference.

I think that the book could've been written better, but it was enjoyable enough, and I didn't yell at it, like I often do with Shakespeare retcons. And so, if you like historical romance with minimal sex (oh, they have plenty of it, but everything is left to the imagination) and the idea of Shakespeare having a second wife doesn't repulse you, you may enjoy this. Don't expect a rehash of any of his plays, though. Harper weaves in elements of Shakespeare's play without offering us a blatant ripoff, and I appreciated that much originality.

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