Monday, September 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Netgalley. This did not affect my review.

My most recent read is a beautifully written historical novel that imagines the life of the loyal nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the nurse doesn’t spring to mind as one of the major characters in the play, she does have an influential role. In Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen, the nurse, Angelica, takes center stage.

The story is set in the plague-ridden city of Verona in the mid-1300s. Angelica is a woman nearing middle-age who lives in a poor part of town with her beloved Pietro, a bee-keeper and confectioner. A warm and loving couple, they’d begun raising six boys together but lost them all in a week to the plague. As the story opens, Angelica is giving birth to a surprise, a daughter she had not realized she’d conceived. But the couple’s joy turns quickly to despair. Pietro rushes the baby off to be baptized, and returns with the sorrowful news that the baby is dead.

In an effort to soothe his wife’s grief, Pietro arranges to contract her as a wetnurse to the wealthy and powerful Cappelletti family. Here is where the story truly begins. Angelica becomes "Nurse" to the baby Juliet.

In this household, we meet the Cappellittis, including Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who first presents as a charming young boy who is able to help ease Angelica’s isolation from the world. We watch Juliet grow up in a wealthy but dysfunctional home, embraced by the love of her father, her Nurse, her cousin, and the beekeeper who sneaks in to visit. And we also get a wonderful sense of the violent, vibrant city of Verona. Growing up within that city are all of the Cappellitti’s enemies, including the Montecchis, their most bitter foes. Nurse also watches as the nephews of the prince, Mercutio and Paris, develop over time. So the stage is set for what we know is to come, but it is so richly set that it helps the whirlwind to come make more sense.

Juliet’s Nurse is a lush, full story that gives each of the characters a fully developed personality. We know what’s going to happen when Juliet meets Romeo. It’s still tragic. The whole desperately in love after five minutes of chitchat at a party still seems a bit ridiculous. And it remains a bit frustrating that the adults in the room, like Juliet’s nurse, seem to be complicit in bringing about the tragic end rather than being able to find a way to prevent it. But it’s possible to see how Angelica is backed into a corner by her own experiences with love and what she believes she wants for Juliet. The beauty of this novel is that the focus is not so much on the teenage lovers as it is on the long-suffering Angelica. Lois Leveen has made this minor character into a star.

Juliet’s Nurse will be available on 9/23/14. It can be pre-ordered now.

This is my 16th historical novel for the Historical Novel Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

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