Juliet’s Nurse is a beautifully-crafted piece of historical fiction, and a wonderful example of how to take a minor character from a well-known work of literature and make her into a well-rounded, fully fleshed-out character. Although the author made one choice that disappointed me greatly, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it.
The bawdy, garrulous Nurse (whose first name, Angelica, is mentioned only once in the play) is a favourite character in Shakespeare’s famous play, and it took only a little imagination for historical fiction writer Lois Leveen to take the hints of backstory in the Nurse’s speeches and turn them into a complete life. Juliet’s Nurse begins on the day — Lammas Eve — when Angelica’s daughter Susanna is born and dies, and Angelica is hired by the wealthy Capaletti family as wet-nurse to their newborn daughter Juliet. Angelica not only bonds with the Capaletti baby but becomes completely entranced with her, willingly staying away from her beloved husband Pietro (though managing to sneak out for the odd bit of afternoon delight with him) so that she can continue to care for her beloved Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet is one of the Shakespeare plays I know best, having taught it to ninth and tenth-graders numerous times, seen many movie and stage adaptations, and even performed in an production as an extra (I danced at the Capulet’s ball, and I gasped in horror at the street fight. Years later I found the program for the production I was in and realized that Allan Hawco, now locally famous as Jake Doyle, had a speaking role in the same show where I was an extra — so we have been on stage together!). One of my problems with the play has always been that it’s a tragedy, but it’s never managed to stir any real emotion in me — I’ve always found, no matter how good the production, that Romeo and Juliet are such thinly developed characters and their supposedly great love such an obviously fleeting attraction that its hard to be emotionally invested in their deaths.
This problem is tackled wonderfully in the first two-thirds of Juliet’s Nurse, as the characters on the Capulet/Capaletti side of the feud become real people, and the Nurse’s love for Juliet so deep that I couldn’t bear to think of the tragedy that was still coming to a woman who had already lost so much in her life. One of Leveen’s most brilliant strokes is to take the nurse’s apparently odd line at the news of Tybalt’s death (“O Tybalt! The best friend I had!”) and give it some backstory. In the play, it just seems like some crazy Nurse hyperbole — why would Juliet’s aristocratic cousin be best buds with her old nursemaid, especially as we never see the Nurse and Tybalt interact with each other? But Leveen’s story reminds us that if the Nurse has been with the Capaletti household for fourteen years, she’s seen Tybalt as well as Juliet grow up. Tybalt is the character perhaps most interestingly fleshed-out in this novel, and realizing that he, like Juliet, is doomed to die makes the inevitable tragedy loom all the larger throughout the first two-thirds of the novel.
After that point, the novel catches up with the play, and here’s the part where I think (for my taste, as a reader) Leveen makes a crucial misstep. Once the action of Shakespeare’s play begins, she includes every scene that occurs in the play (at least, all the ones for which the Nurse is present or nearby), and not only sticks to the scenes as they unfold in the play, but keeps the dialogue as close to Shakespeare’s lines as possible. This results not only in dialogue that’s much more stilted and formal-sounding than the rest of the book, but turns the characters from the flesh-and-blood people in whose lives we’ve been immersed to — well, characters in a play. As soon as Shakespeare took over the plot and dialogue, I felt the characters retreat from me, become less real and immediate, and the agonizing moments of loss I’d been dreading — Tybalt’s death, Juliet’s death — became only scenes from a play again. The novel only leapt to life for me again at the very end, when we get a little glimpse into Angelica’s life beyond the tragic deaths, beyond the play’s timeline.
So, while I understand that it was necessary to keep the outline of Shakespeare’s plot, I think trying to recreate his scenes and especially his dialogue was a mistake that robbed the ending of the book of some of its power for me — but despite this, I still think it was an excellent retelling of the story that had far more emotional impact on me than the play has ever done. Though there is something to be said for the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s plays, setting the stories back in their historical context gives them tremendous power. This is perhaps best illustrated in this novel by the moment when the Nurse overhears one of the play’s most famous lines. Mercutio’s “A plague o’ both your houses!” sounds to our ears like a generic curse — but how would it have sounded to a woman who vividly remembers the last time the bubonic plague swept through Verona, and the shattering losses she endured then? “Plague” is a word that, for us, has been stripped of its emotional weight and become neutered; we need to imagine living through a plague outbreak, as Angelica does in the novel, to share the chilly dread she feels when she hears those words.