Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
Publisher: Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Length: 384 pages
Source: Atria Books via NetGalley
Lois Leveen imagines a backstory for the nurse of the ill-fated Juliet in her new novel, Juliet’s Nurse. The character of the nurse speaks the most number of lines after the title characters in Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare tells us precious little about the nurse herself. Leveen’s thoroughly-researched book puts the nurse center stage, and provides a new perspective on the tragic story of the teen lovers, as well as the experience of women in 14th century Italy.
The Story: Angelica, the forty-something wife of a bee-keeper in 14th century Verona, has suffered the loss of six sons to the plague. Somehow, Angelica has managed to bear this unimaginable sorrow, with the help of her loving and bawdy husband Pietro. As the novel opens, Angelica finds, to her immense surprise, that she is pregnant with a seventh child. When the baby dies soon after birth, grief-stricken Angelica takes a position as a wet-nurse for the newborn daughter of a wealthy and powerful family, the Cappellettis. At the expense of her relationship to Pietro, Angelica becomes more than just a nurse to Juliet. She is the nurturing, caring presence in Juliet’s life for fourteen years. When Juliet meets a charismatic young man from a rival family, however, a series of events deeply rooted in the Cappelletti family’s secrets and rivalries begins to unfold. The results will bring tragedy, yet again, to the people Angelica loves most in the world.
My Thoughts: Leveen does a good job of creating a plausible backstory for Angelica. In her novel, the comical but ill-defined nurse of Shakespeare’s play becomes a fully formed and memorable character with her own strong emotions and motivations. Leveen also provides an excellent window into medieval life, with all of its difficulties and tragedies, especially for women. Leveen makes perfectly clear, for example, that you would NOT have wanted to experience childbirth in the 14th century (in case you had any doubt on that particular question! If you should suddenly find yourself time-traveling, Outlander style, to the Middle Ages, I highly suggest finding a convent to wait it out.).
Although Juliet’s Nurse is a solid and readable historical novel, it has some shortcomings that, for me, anyway, kept it from fulling reaching its promise. The unrelenting tragedies and sorrows of Angelica’s life can become repetitive. Leveen’s portrayal of Angelica’s love for Juliet can feel needlessly repetitive, too. The novel has some pacing issues, as well. In the final third of the novel, Leveen switches from a slow and nuanced portrayal of Angelica’s experiences into a rapid-fire retelling of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, even using Shakespeare’s dialogue to tell the story. I found this change rather abrupt and jarring. Angelica’s borrowed Shakespearean lines, which differ so greatly from her language in the first two-thirds of the novel, seem vastly out of place. Finally, I felt Juliet was not a fully developed character; I didn’t sense, for example, the depth of her emotions about Romeo, or anything else, for that matter. Although this is, of course, Angelica’s story, Juliet’s importance to the tale is central, and without a layered portrayal of Juliet, the novel seemed to be lacking something.
I would rate Juliet’s Nurse a three out of five stars. I would recommend it to those readers who particularly love the medieval time period or the story of Romeo and Juliet.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.