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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

Late Summer 2022

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Maggie O'Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

Mona Awad, All's Well

Christa Couture, How to Lose Everything

Alice Oseman, Heartstopper Volume 4

Lucy Foley, The Guest List

Colleen Hoover, Regretting You

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

On a recent trip to London, England, I saw performances of several different Shakespeare plays and spent lots of time in the type of gift shop that sells, for example, Julius Caesar motif socks, or coasters with Macbeth quotes on them. Also in those gift shops were copies of Maggie O’Farrell’s book, which I read long before even imagining I’d end up in England this summer, and where this book’s title is simply Hamnet, rather than Hamnet and Judith. It’s not cool, in my opinion, Hamnet is not the focus of this book. Nor is Judith, really. It’s their creative, healing, animal-whispering mother Agnes who is the true and memorable star of this book, and who deserves to be named in its title, if you ask me.

The story is told in two timelines, opening with a mesmerizing description of eleven-year old Hamnet frantically searching his house, its grounds, and the surrounding town for any adult who can help his suddenly very ill sister. A second timeline, told in alternating chapters, explores Will and Agnes’s love story, which began fifteen years earlier.

In the earlier timeline, we meet the teenaged Will who is reluctantly working as a Latin tutor for Agnes’s family. Will is smart and thoughtful, but not interested in the instruction of his pupils. Unfortunately, his father owes a debt to Agnes’s stepfather, so he is obligated to do this work. Agnes, several years older than Will, does not need a tutor. Instead, she wanders the family estate alone, her only company a falcon on her arm. Like Will, we find her difficult to forget.

This is a book not a film obvi, but when Will and Agnes do eventually meet, the chemistry between them is tangibly cinematic. Only an extraordinary storyteller can convey clearly that ambiguous feeling of falling in love with someone you’ve only just met. (What is that feeling? Is it slippery? Amorphous? Ill-defined? Pure? All of those things?) There’s a delightful scene of them getting busy in an apple storage shed, their passion dismantling the careful organization of apples stored for the winter. The apples falling against each other, scattered and bruised, remind us that our most meaningful relationships are messy and likely to undo anything we've planned for ourselves.

Ultimately Will and Agnes have to get married because Agnes is pregnant. But also, they love each other. Their twins, Judith and Hamnet are born and Will’s talent and fame seems to grow at the same pace his children do. Will spends more and more time away in London at the theater, and Hamnet and Judith are raised by their mother and paternal grandparents. At home in Stratford, Agnes is known as an expert apothecary, offering herbal cures for common ailments. Despite the criticism of many that her work is somehow spooky and mystical, Agnes offers an essential healing service to her community, especially as people begin to fall ill with the bubonic plague.

Agnes’s singular independence, her competence as a mother and a family member, coupled with her ability to hold on to her own dignity, make her an unforgettable character. When Hamnet dies, her grief is immense. Will retreats to London, to acting and writing, and she is left at home to manage Judith, struggling under the perpetual weight of her in-laws’ disapproval. The book ends as Shakespeare's new play Hamlet is being first performed. The world is familiar with Shakespeare’s grief, personified by his troubled and complicated hero who bears a version of his son’s name. O’Farrell gives us something we don’t already know: a view of Agnes’s quieter, no less devastating grief, which is perhaps more recognizable, perhaps easier to empathize with than the bombast of Hamlet.

What’s not coming through as I struggle here to retell a gorgeously complex and deeply character-driven plot, is the straight-up magic of O’Farrell’s writing. She is so precise and patient in unraveling this tale that reading it is unforgettably immersive.

It’s a marvelous piece of writing.

Mona Awad, All’s Well

It was not exactly my intention to do all this Shakespeare-related reading, but you know, sometimes life surprises you.

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of those not-so-often performed plays. Its tone is ambiguous, its characters unlikable, and its resolution is deeply unsatisfying. By naming her book after the play, Awad sets us up to be troubled by the story she’s going to tell from the get-go.

Main character Miranda Fitch is a former actor who now works as a sessional assistant professor at a small American college. She was once a promising actor with a glittering future, but her career was cut short by an unfortunate fall from the stage during her own performance as Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well. The resulting injuries ended her acting career and left her in constant, chronic pain, which she must treat with a steady stream of painkillers and endless appointments with practitioners of varying legitimacy.

Fitch is a complicated and unreliable narrator. She makes poor decisions and alienates those most able to help her. She insists on directing All’s Well That Ends Well with her first year theater students, despite its problematic nature and the fact that others involved in the show, from students to the set designer, would prefer to be staging the more accessible and action-filled Macbeth. Their objections only cause Miranda to commit more fiercely to the project, transparently attempting to regain the control over life that she once had.

Obstacles mount for Miranda. The cast nearly mutinies when she invites the least likely, mousiest girl in class to be Helen, star of the show. Her colleague / nemesis Fauve dogs her every move, reporting every one of Miranda’s poorly thought out decisions to the dean. Through a painkiller fog, Miranda retreats further from rational thought and grows ever more hostile to anyone she perceives as a threat to the show’s success.

There’s a lot going on here, both on the surface and under it. First, Miranda’s pain is clearly real and persistent, but almost everyone believes she is exaggerating (performing?) her level of discomfort. This is one of those truths about chronic pain, and in particular, women’s pain, that Awad wants us to recognize: the world tends to disbelieve women, to diminish our experiences as if we cannot possibly be telling the truth. Hint: this is about more than chronic pain. Also, Miranda typically does not work hard to please others, which causes people to dislike her. Men who act this way are admired for their bold and creative thinking, but Miranda is typically viewed by her superiors and her students as unreasonable and difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. This feminist reader takes those notes seriously for sure, but at the same time, because Miranda narrates the story, we can’t know how others actually feel - their behaviours (as described by her) are kind of awful. At the same time, so is Miranda. Her narrow perspective, stubbornness, and poor decision making, are tough to witness without making the same judgments as her peers do about her. Or, are these judgments she’s making about herself? How can we know?

At the critical moment in the rising action, when Miranda’s academic career and the directing of the play are surely about to tank, she meets three (it’s the magic number!) mysterious characters at the local pub who grant her the power to transfer her pain to others. The next day she learns that a financial gift has been anonymously donated to the theater department, one large enough to allow for the show to go on.

Even a non-English teacher can see that, like the three witches at the beginning of Macbeth, these men at the pub are up to no good. In her desperation, though, Miranda uses her new advantages to carry on with her vision, growing further alienated and delusional as opening night approaches. It is uncomfortable to witness.

As much as I did not like Miranda, Awad’s framing of her tale reminded me to interrogate my assumptions about difficult women, and to probe more deeply for the nugget of truth beneath what is visible on the surface. It’s always good advice.

Christa Couture, How To Lose Everything

In her memoir How To Lose Everything, Couture, an artist and musician, tells about a series of harrowing experiences. Here they are: as an adolescent, Couture’s leg was amputated because of a cancerous tumor; Couture’s first child is born terminally ill, and dies after only one day of life; her second child requires a heart transplant shortly after birth and dies at fourteen months; she and her partner split up after these losses; and, most recently, she undergoes a thyroidectomy that threatens her professional singing career.

It’s more grief than most of us bear, and Couture’s decision to share it is remarkable. Her writing is sharply raw and honest, frank in a way that is at times uncomfortable. Couture includes the text of lyrics she wrote through each trauma, which is a device I tend not to like. (I can’t shift my brain from prose-reading to poetry-reading mode as is required in these circumstances. Go ahead and judge me; I deserve it.) In this book, the songs were a welcome addition, providing an alternative view of events already described. They’re a lovely addition to a difficult story.

That Couture is able to remain positive and hopeful despite her traumas is remarkable; it is the reason you should read this book.

Alice Oseman, Heartstopper Vol. 4

For the love of gawd, if you have not yet read anything by Alice Oseman, please sort your situation out today! She is incredible, as are her charming, anxious, realistically young and inconsistently wise teenaged characters. Volume 4 of Heartstopper carries on with Nick and Charlie’s love story, which continues to be sweet but faces an obstacle when Nick goes away on holiday for the summer, leaving Charlie alone for several weeks. Charlie’s tendency to isolate himself when feeling anxious kicks in, as does his latent anorexia, while Nick struggles to keep in touch and provide support from afar.

The adults in this story are beautifully gentle and caring, which we see when Nick finally confesses to his mom that he is deeply worried about Charlie’s physical and emotional health. She listens patiently and then offers some of the hardest advice there is: Sometimes all you can do is stay near and bear witness. She explains that it’s so difficult to accept that you can’t solve another person’s problems, but that is the reality of loving someone. Just be there when they are ready to ask for help.

On his return home, Nick and Charlie reunite, and together face Charlie’s problems, which do not go away all at once or easily. It’s a long time before Charlie confides in his own parents and allows them to help. Around Christmas time his anxiety and depression become so serious that requires intensive medical treatment. It’s not great that this is Charlie’s experience, but it is great that his community stays near and provides support, even when they feel nervous or uncomfortable about how to act around him.

By sharing Charlie’s story, Oseman offers a narrative of adolescent mental health issues that is neither unrealistically optimistic nor darkly cautionary. She shows how depression makes it hard to ask for help from those you love, and it blurs your perspective so that all you see is your own fear. More importantly, she shows what is gained when you seek help: a reminder of how much you are loved and how important you are to the world.

To do all this against the backdrop of gay teenaged love and summertime fun is no small feat. It’s impossible to read this volume of the series and not love these amazing characters even more.

P.S. I’m telling you now, so you can be prepared later: Volume 5 will be the last installment of Nick and Charlie’s story. Infinite sad face over here.

Lucy Foley, The Guest List

The Guest List was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick in June 2020, which explains why it’s been seemingly everywhere. Many a time I’ve picked it up, read the back cover, considered whether I’m ready for a Gone Girl-type experience, then put it back down, thinking, Anything this popular can’t be that good. (This is some kind of cynical Gen-X knee jerk response that I learned from being raised in the seventies. I can’t help it, man.)

Well, here you go: it’s not bad. The story is set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, where Jules Keegan, online magazine publisher and all around glamour girl is set to marry her charming and handsome reality television star fiance, Will Slater. Told from a third person omniscient perspective, the book’s very first chapter reveals that someone is murdered the night of the wedding. After that, each chapter is narrated by a different guest of the wedding, offering differing perspectives of the days leading up to the event. Foley’s technique is successful in building a narrative web around the central mystery of the story, but I found myself frustrated by wanting to know who the heck was killed. The plot’s a bit draggy for the first third of the book, to be honest.

A remote and basically uninhabited island is the perfect setting, because people cannot simply come and go from the crime scene. It’s also a bit spooky (c.f. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None), with its history of ancient occupants who dabbled in witchcraft, and its extensively craggy and boggy landscape. The bogs are like quicksand, and several times characters who are minding their own business get stuck when wandering just slightly off established trails.

Every one of the characters is a cliché: the bride’s much younger and less glamorous step- sister who harbours a painful secret; Johnno, the groom’s longtime best friend and super-fuck up; the unnervingly quiet wedding planner and owner of the island; the wife of the bride’s best friend (or maybe more than a friend?) who is persistently ignored by almost everyone.

Is this one of those challenging and artful narratives that has you guessing till the very end? No, I’m afraid not. But it is certainly an engaging read that kept me busy on a seven hour flight and left me thinking after I’d finished reading it.

Solid B+, The Guest List. You’re alright.

Colleen Hoover, Regretting You

Full disclosure: I did not finish this book, so I can’t give you a legit review. I can only talk about my experience reading it and invite you to decide for yourself whether this is a writer you wish to check out.

Starting last spring, it seemed like every fifteen-year-old high schooler was asking me if the library had any Colleen Hoover books. Mystified and impressed by Hoover’s sudden popularity, I slowly began to add her titles to the library collection. Any author who can engage young readers so thoroughly is to be respected, full stop.

But man, this book is crap.

Chapter one is narrated by seventeen-year-old Morgan at an indeterminate time in the past. Morgan is in a funk, despite having a loving boyfriend Chris and a sister, Jenny, who is also her best friend. As the story opens, all three are on their way to a party with Jonah, who is Chris’s friend and Jenny’s newish boyfriend. Morgan dwells on the fact that both Chris and Jenny are scene stealing extroverts while she and Jonah prefer to stay out of the limelight. Because Chris and Jenny are such partiers, Jonah and Morgan have a prior arrangement that one of them will always be the designated driver. Clearly there’s a kind of romantic undercurrent to Morgan and Jonah’s friendship, but it isn’t explicitly addressed. At some point in the middle of the party Morgan thinks about how late her period is, and suspects that she is pregnant. Her funk deepens. What will happen to her future if she is pregnant? What about these unresolved feelings she has for Jonah? It’s all exposition all the time here in chapter one, which is how so much information can be conveyed so quickly. You might even say by, um, telling rather than showing?

Chapter two is narrated by Clara, seventeen years after the events of chapter one. Morgan was pregnant after all, she and Chris got married, and Clara is their daughter. Clara is seventeen, Morgan is thirty-four, and Jenny remains Morgan’s best friend and Clara’s beloved auntie, available for advice in scenarios Clara would prefer not to share with her own mother. Jenny and Jonah have reunited after many years apart and have a newborn son together. Clara appreciates her mom’s predictable nature, but hopes for a more spontaneous and exciting future for herself. Also, there’s this mysterious fellow, Miller, in Clara's orbit. She likes this guy but won’t admit it, and her family seems to think Miller is a bad seed.

Very shortly after the story begins, Chris and Jenny are killed in a car crash and their families are left wondering why they were in the same car together on a weekday morning. Were they…having an affair? All this time? What the what? Morgan is in shock, only slowly absorbing what seems clear to the reader from page three of the book.

In Morgan’s voice, responding to this surprising trauma, Hoover writes (you could say, unnecessarily) “As if their deaths weren’t enough, the blows just keep coming, and they’re getting more and more severe.”

I mean, ugh.

Reviews and testimonials about the book suggest it is primarily about Morgan and Clara working out their relationship, a classic tale of how a mother copes with her daughter’s coming of age. But the implausible events that begin the story make it feel more like a made for TV movie about cheaters. There may be thoughtful and caring conversations between Morgan and Clara later in the book, but I didn’t make it there, friends. Life’s too short.

I’m always happy when folks are reading books, and I will keep making this and other titles by Hoover available to my sweet teenage patrons, along with the DaVinci Code, the Twilight series and all those Maze Runner books.

But Heartstopper Volumes 1 through 4 get priority display.

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