Juliet’s Nurse

Although I raised my hand for Juliet in my high school English class’ dramatic reading, I was assigned the Nurse. My English teacher consoled me by explaining that this was a meatier role, which didn’t help much, and that as the Nurse, I’d get to make dick jokes in class, which definitely did.

Juliet’s nurse is a pretty interesting character (when you are not jealously listening to the Juliet scenes, that is), and the upcoming novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen explores this character’s life. We all know the basic story of Romeo and Juliet, but this retelling focuses on the relationships and loyalties, and explains some of the odder plot devices in wider context of Verona.

In my reading of Romeo and Juliet, I couldn’t help questioning what kind of Friar just happens to have a stash of false-death medicine lying around, but amid the shifting politics and bloody vendettas in Leveen’s Verona, it made perfect sense. Probably not the first time Friar Lorenzo’s faked a death, either.

Rosaline’s dedication to the convent at such a young age always squicked me, but it seems completely reasonable in a society of tween brides and mothers.

Worries about the plague are constantly around Verona, instead of appearing as a random plot device. The plague has claimed lives from all social classes, moral and immoral characters alike, and the fear of swift and certain death from plague haunts all of Verona.

This novel was much more historical fiction set in fair Verona, although it followed the events of the play accurately as well. (Is it still a spoiler to reveal the ending to a play published in the 1590s?)

The nurse begins her association with the Cappelletti family as a wetnurse to newborn Juliet. She can become a wetnurse because she’s just lost her own baby girl, and her grief bonds her with this substitute daughter. Long after a wetnurse is unnecessary, the nurse stays on in the Cappelletti household, caring for Juliet and her young cousin Tybalt. She’s not terribly impressed by the wealth and power of the Cappellettis, although she enjoys the comforts it brings her, and loves the children a substitute for her sons, who died of plague, and her baby daughter who died hours after being born.

Throughout the book, Lord Capulet makes young Tybalt aware of slights given and received by the Cappellettis and other rival families, and keeps up with the street brawls and public insults between families. Although the nurse loyally serves her beloved Juliet, and by extension, the Cappelletti household, she has her own marriage and her own sorrow and her own secrets.

I loved the deeper characterizations for Shakespeare’s characters, although I thought the scenes that directly mirrored the play were the weakest part in the novel. After being shown a bawdy, earthy, loving nurse through the entire novel, I didn’t really need a recap of how she followed Lady Capulet’s poetic speech about marriage with a sex joke, or what she said to Romeo’s friends during the whole message-delivering bit. I found myself skimming that part, and just looking for clues that maybe somehow the whole fake death plan would somehow succeed this time. Maybe everyone in Verona was completely fooled by the double death (actually a triple death, somehow I’d forgotten that Paris ends up dead beside the lovers in the tomb) and while they’re building a monument and ending the family rivalry,  really Romeo and Juliet (and the faithful  nurse, of course) escaped successfully to some small Italian village to live out their lives safely and happily!?!?  Maybe Tybalt was going to be just fine, too?

Juliet’s Nurse is exactly what my high school English teacher promised: A complex and nuanced character, with lots of sex jokes.

I received an eARC of this novel from the publisher to review. As always, all opinions are my own, and review copies have never stopped me from snarking about a bad book.

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