The key to this book is the subtitle “A Novel of the Plague”. I should note that I listened to this as an Audible book and absolutely loved the narrator. I may look for further books read by her just to enjoy listening to her lovely voice.
This historical fiction novel is based around the early death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet when he was 11. The book is set primarily in Stratford, although the final chapters take place in London after Hamnet’s death. The book centers not around Shakespeare himself, but more around his wife, Agnes (who was referred to as either Anne or Agnes in various documents), and their family, as well as painting a portrait of late 16th century rural life. The death of Hamnet is attributed to the plague and the author devotes a fair amount of writing to how the plague was dispersed throughout Europe, discussing trade routes and sea travel and the movement of goods by sea and on land.
Things I Loved:
1. The writing: Lyrical and beautifully written, the author’s attention to word choice and phrasing is wonderful. The descriptive passages let you move right into Stratford and the family, really bringing it all to life.
2. A lot of historical details: If you’re a history geek like I am, you’ll appreciate how seamlessly O’Farrell brings the era to life. She explores topics of life and (obviously) death, the vast differences between city and small-town life of the era, and the countryside around Stratford.
3. Her creation of the characters that live in this world: Shakespeare is never referred to by name. I liked that. He is “the tutor”, “the husband”, “the son”, “the player”, but never Shakespeare. I think there’s so much history and weight associated with his name that making him a more neutral figure in the story helped tell Agnes’s tale that much better.
4. The little hints dropped carefully here and there throughout that refer to scenes, characters, dialogue from Shakespeare’s plays.
Things I Didn’t Love:
1. I felt the book could have used a bit of editing. The scenes where Agnes and her daughters are grieving dragged a little for me. I also felt less time could have been devoted to describing how the plague travelled to Stratford.
2. This isn’t exactly a criticism and I know that much of the details of Shakespeare’s life aren’t known, so by it’s very nature a lot of this book has to be fiction and supposition. We do know Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet, who died. (Shakespeare also had 2 daughters, one older, Suzanna, and one who was Hamnet’s twin (Judith) who survived into adulthood.) Beyond that, there is no indication that he actually died of the plague. The author has a short note at the end of the book about why she chose that scenario, but I sure would have liked some more details about why she chose that. Did the plague arrive in Stratford that year? What other sources did she use to make that leap that’s a key plot point? (And maybe it’s just the history geek in me that wants to know more more more.)
In general, I enjoyed this book. I loved the writing, the character development, and the world O’Farrell opened up for present-day readers with a keen eye towards the past. If you are interested in Shakespeare in general or the late Tudor period, you’d likely enjoy this one. Beautifully written and I will look for others by this author for future reads.
Star rating: 4/5