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Book Review: Juliet’s Nurse

By (September 19, 2014) No Comment

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by Lois Leveen

Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books, 2014

Whether it’s from Paul West’s wonderful novel Lord Byron’s Doctor or Roger McDonald’s book Mr. Darwin’s Shooter or Jo Baker’s fantastic Longbourn – or a host of other candidates – readers of historical novels will be familiar with a sub-genre we could dub menial fiction: the story of some famous personage (real or fictional) re-told through the eyes of their hired help. The narrative possibilities are both endless (what famous person hasn’t had flunkies?) and instantly tempting to the author struggling for an angle, since employees are less daunting than their bosses and yet see enough of the action to gossip authoritatively for the reader’s entertainment.

The Shakespearean canon particularly teems with potential. Lear’s Fool, I, Caliban, Horatio’s Story, I Served the King of Naples … it’s a well that won’t run dry.

The title of Lois Leveen’s new book, Juliet’s Nurse, fits right in with such a gallery, plainly announcing that we’re going to get the world’s most famous love story as seen through the eyes of doughty Angelica, the wet-nurse and caretaker of Juliet for the fourteen years of her life prior to the hurtling action of Romeo and Juliet. Many’s the undergraduate reader of that play who’s grateful to the Nurse for bringing a smile here and there to the otherwise superheated proceedings (“Such a lot of bother” the Duchess of Portland once remarked upon leaving a performance, “I’m exhausted“). Those undergraduates – and readers in general – will be surprised and perhaps initially dismayed to find plenty of tragedy and not all that much comic relief in the version of the Nurse’s life story Leveen gives us.

Some of it – a dead husband, a dead child – is hinted in the play, of course, and Leveen does more than flesh out these details; she subtly re-shapes 14th-Century Verona and the surrounding countryside into something not-quite-Shakespeare, mainly by de-Englishing him. The Montagues become the Montecchi, the Capulets become the Cappelletti, and so on. She puts these warring, striving families firmly in their historical setting, and when the Nurse thinks of her life in the Via Zancani with her dear husband Pietro the bee-keeper, the details are both convincing and intimate:

Tybalt talked so much of how Pietro loved his bees, I try to feel for the tiny creatures some small part of what my big bear of a husband felt. As I tip the jug I carry, the bees dance with expectant delight, the most adventurous ones touching down on one of the tiny rocks, drinking from the shimmery surface even before I’m done. It’s not unlike tending a flock. Though it was my family’s poverty that put me to shepherding, I came to relish roaming beyond the sinister confines of my father’s house, the dull familiar of our little village. I passed happy days among my sheep, soothing any nighttime pangs of solitude by burrowing myself against a warm, woolly companion. It’s a comfort to think Pietro felt the same, venturing from the Via Zancani to set one hive and then another, slowly casting a buzzing skein around Verona and the countryside beyond.

As you can see from that little reminiscence, Tybalt is still with us – at least until he’s not. He still becomes the sworn enemy of that “rakehell” Romeo Montecche, and violent events still escalate as the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet quickly draws all around them into swordplay, poison, and mourning. Like any hopeful member of the audience watching Shakespeare’s play for the first time, our good Nurse knows perfectly well what she should be hoping for: “The marriage blazed, the families reconciled, Juliet and Romeo dwelling happily together for ever after,” she somewhat forlornly imagines. “This is what she wants. What I, loving her, should want as well.”

But such hopes turn to ash when the unthinkable happens – when Romeo kills Tybalt (it’s perfectly timed in the play, although it feels a little dawdly here), many dooms are irrevocably sealed. The Nurse has raised and mothered Tybalt just as surely as she’s raised and mothered Juliet herself, which makes her bewilderment at Juliet’s reactions all the more heart-rending. Leveen captures it well and even lets her diction rise to the occasion:

“What’s worse than Tybalt’s dead, so long as we both live?

Before I even force aloud the question, she answers. “Tybalt’s death was woe enough. But Romeo is banished cuts like ten thousand Tybalt’s dead.”

Tybalt, who loved and was loved by her for fourteen years. Who held her dear from the first day I bore her to this chamber. Whose face, and voice, and doting touch were the second she learned after mine. How does she shed tears over this living Romeo she’s known but a day, and forget it’s a lifetime of our dearest Tybalt that’s lost to us?

Juliet is every bit as emphatic in the novel as she is in Shakespeare’s play (in the hard-edged way she grapples with her own raging emotions, she puts the wishy-washy modern YA heroines of Stephenie Meyer and John Green to shame), and Leveen makes perfect, deceptively easy-looking use of the Bard’s immortal phrasings. “Romeo, my three-hours husband, was meant to make a highway to my bed,” Juliet famously cries. “But it’s death, not Romeo, that’ll take my maidenhead.” To which the Nurse – we’ve long since stopped thinking of her as comic relief – responds: “She does not speak these words to me, but to some specter only she can see. It frights me. Not because such madness is so strange, but because it’s so familiar.”

Juliet’s Nurse makes for very shrewd and intelligent reading – all the more miraculously so, since a) nobody watching Romeo and Juliet is actually interested in the Nurse as a person, b) we know for a certainty that she isn’t present at most of the story’s key scenes (although Leveen smuggles her in as an accidental witness to Mercutio’s “plague on both your houses” death scene), and c) we know how the legendary love story ends before we read a single page of the novel. Those are no small obstacles to overcome, and Leveen not only overcomes them but makes us forget them. This is not the Nurse’s rightly-scorned weak dealing but instead a genuinely fine and involving novel in its own right. If all menial fiction could promise to be this good, then let’s have The Secret Diary of Jeeves without delay.