Culture & Conversation

Star-crossed nanny

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Juliet’s Nurse, by Lois Leveen, Random House Canada

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an iconic love story, often adapted, satirized or sampled. Lois Leveen’s novel, Juliet’s Nurse, boldly imagines another story behind the familiar account of the ill-starred adolescent lovers doomed by conflicting family loyalties and political strife.

Leveen weaves the life of Juliet’s nurse around and then into the well-known sequence of events, adding an amorous husband and some romantic bees for sweetness. This version of the story grounds the action in a historically based Renaissance Verona, only recently recovered from the devastation of the plague.

We meet Angelica as she is about to give birth to an unexpected late-life child. Her six sons all perished in the plague and she is coping with sorrow, much comforted by her randy and adoring husband, a beekeeper who feeds her honeyed fruits. She has a baby daughter, but the baby, pale and weak, dies. Barely recovered from the birth and this fresh loss, Angelica is led through the streets to become wet nurse to the newborn Juliet Cappelletta.

Leveen imagines the emotional rollercoaster a 14th-century wet nurse might have experienced, forced by poverty into nourishing another family’s child. She is an outsider in the household even while she provides possibly the most intimate of services. Leveen leads the reader through the events of Juliet’s childhood, laying the groundwork for the events we know will occur only fourteen years hence, giving life to the character of the nurse, Juliet, Tybalt and others familiar from Shakespeare’s play, as well a cast of players unique to the pages of Leveen’s reimagining.

Juliet’s Nurse is a fun read, earthy, bawdy and rollicking at times. It is full of sensual delights — lavish feasts filled with exotic dishes that make the turducken look ordinary, and loving descriptions of rich fabrics, jewels, and elaborate clothing that would fill a volume of Italian Vogue (Renaissance edition). It’s a daring conceit for a novel, audacious even; to expand on a piece of writing by Shakespeare sets the bar very high. And in spite of the pleasures to be found in its pages, Juliet’s Nurse is not nearly equal to its inspiring genius.

Nurse’s feelings drive the story, but what initially feels like a complex and passionate emotional life becomes repetitive. Her love for her husband, which she tells us is strong and passionate, is nevertheless easily subordinated to her attachment to the child Juliet; that attachment begins to appear unhealthy, even creepy, as Nurse increasingly relies on the maturing teenager to fulfill her emotional needs. Juliet only comes alive briefly during the period covered by the play, when Leveen adapts action and dialogue from Shakespeare. Otherwise her character is barely sketched, hardly visible during middle childhood, with, apparently, no terrible twos, teenaged sulks or individual personality of any kind until she meets Romeo and suddenly puts her shapely little foot down. There is no sense of Juliet learning about the world around her, seeing things with her child’s eyes, developing a personality.

The book is full of invented (or in some cases archaic) words. The best of them are lightheartedly playful and add a charming effervescence (of a glutton at breakfast, Leveen writes “By the time the prime-hour bells toll, he’s guttled himself full”). But more often the woefully out-of-context Shakespearean vocabulary (“endart”), verbed adjectives (“sullened” and “raws her nerves”), and verbed nouns (“fazzoletto scarved around her neck”) come across as contrived, affectations rather than Renaissance-era colour.

A literary audience looking for fresh insight into one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays must look elsewhere. But for those who enjoy historical fiction with a woman’s perspective and a splash of sensual colour, Juliet’s Nurse might be just the thing.

Elise Moser is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of Quebec Writing Competition winners, Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec. Her YA novel Lily and Taylor was named to the ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults 2014 list.

– photo: Stephen Vance, Flickr Creative Commons


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