Author Jean Hegland knows how to pitch a Shakespeare geek. She told me that her latest novel was "about a Shakespeare scholar struggling with dementia who is trying to come to terms with his life even as his estranged daughter (an aspiring video game designer named Miranda) is attempting to reconcile with him.
I told her that the Lear/Prospero crossover was going to get me all misty-eyed even thinking about it. The whole "video game designer" thing is just a bonus for my computer programmer life :)
I'm not going to lie, this is a difficult book to read. It opens, for heaven's sake, with a wife explaining to her husband why she has to put him in a nursing home. It opens with that. There's not going to be any "happily ever after" here when you start like that.
Look, I've always said that Shakespeare means different things to you depending on where you are in life. The entirety of human emotion is, at one point or another, played out upon Shakespeare's stage. When we say he wrote the recipe for what it means to be human, he didn't leave out any chapters.
There will come a time in everyone's life when they have to experience the closing act. Maybe it's for your parents, or your grandparents, or yourself. It's never a fun topic to think about because, as I said, we know how it ends and it's not going to be happy. But there is oh so much Shakespeare to help us through it.
That is exactly what this novel wants to do. It strikes such a personal chord that I counted half a dozen moments (at least!) that come straight out of my life. But you have to take the good with the bad. When he complains of no longer being able to organize his thoughts clearly in his head, how brilliant large scale theories come to him so frequently but yet he can't seem to pull them together coherently when he attempts to write them down, I know exactly what he means and fear that it will only get worse. When he realizes that he's forgotten the ending to King Lear it is heartbreaking as I simultaneously imagine what that must be like while I pray that I never learn.
Structurally speaking this is not the kind of book I usually read. One of the reasons that I love Shakespeare is that I believe in dialogue-driven character development. I could read an entire novel of nothing but people talking to each other, as long as I didn't lose track of the pronouns. This is a novel about the thoughts of a man alone in a nursing home, and I admit to skimming at times, waiting for a visitor to show up so people could start speaking out loud. There is a plot - we do learn about his estranged daughter and what's going on in her life, all mapped against musings of the theme of forgiveness and second chances in Shakespeare's late plays. But when you put one character who speaks in snippets of Shakespeare into a conversation with a character who actively denies them, there had better be some depth in that other character. I didn't see it. Maybe that's yet another personal chord, giving me a glimpse into a future where I don't understand what is important in my children's lives, and why what is important to me is not important to them.
That's perhaps the most compelling thing I can say about this book - not only does everything that happens map back to Shakespeare, it maps back to me. Chances are, you're going to feel the same way. Whenever people want to whine about the relevance of Shakespeare today, this is what we try to explain. Everybody gets older, everybody has regrets, everybody wishes for the chance for reconciliation and forgiveness. Shakespeare knew that. Jean Hegland knows that.
At the time of this writing I have not finished the book. I am honestly afraid of how it ends. I know that Winter's Tale and Tempest manage to pull off a happy ending, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!