Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's nurse has more lines than anyone but Romeo and Juliet. If she serves as bawdy comic relief, she remains an intriguing, warm and complex character. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, with numerous novels retelling Juliet's story, it's high time her nurse had a novel, too. Juliet's Nurse is narrated by a woman of the struggling working class in fifteenth-century Italy, a beekeeper's wife graced with a robust sense of humor that helps her survive the tragedies in her life. Angelica has already lost six children to the plague, so when her seventh baby, a late-in-life surprise, is lost, too, she grieves so acutely that her husband arranges a job for her as wet-nurse to the newborn Cappelletti daughter.
A novel has space for a larger, richer story than a play. This novel is about grief. The Cappelletti marriage is undermined because the husband, still mourning his first wife, can summon no love for his young second wife. Juliet's cousin Tybalt grows up motherless and essentially abandoned by a father who cannot bear Tybalt's resemblance to his dead mother. Verona is a city torn apart by a generations-old feud between the Cappelletti and Montecchi families; it began with a single death, now multiplied by the vengeance-killings of grieving, angry young men. Angelica channels her own grief into love for Juliet, a maternal feeling as passionate in its own way as Juliet's love for Romeo.
Earthy, witty, emotionally vibrant and all too human, Angelica makes Juliet's Nurse a compelling read, sometimes delightful, sometimes heart-wrenching. In the final chapters, where the climaxes of the novel and of Shakespeare's play merge, the psychological realism of the novel and the heightened dramatic artifice of the play don't mesh into quite as smoothly engrossing a tale as the rest of the novel. The compensation is an intellectually engaging commentary, in the form of fiction, on Shakespeare's play. No fan of Romeo and Juliet should miss this novel. (2014, 373 pages, including an Author's Note about the history behind the novel)More about Juliet's Nurse at Powell's Books or Amazon.com