I'll never forget one particular moment in my high school English class. We were reading Romeo and Juliet, a rite of passage for bored, lusty, American teenagers everywhere. When I made the offhand suggestion that perhaps the author might have reconsidered the "love at first sight" premise, and instead offered a bit more relationship development for the star-crossed, would-be lovers; my mostly wonderful but occasionally beleaguered teacher (Hi, Mrs. Edwards!) snapped, "You think you can do better than Shakespeare?"
For Portland author Lois Leveen, the answer is—yes? In her most recent novel, "Juliet's Nurse," Leveen reimagines Shakespeare's beloved play from the perspective of the loyal, and surprisingly feisty nurse, appropriating Shakespearian language along the way. "It's only fair: Shakespeare ripped off all his best ideas from other people anyway," says Leveen.
With degrees in history and literature from Harvard University, USC and UCLA, Lois Leveen has a few things to say about the intersection of fiction and fact. Her debut novel, "The Secrets of Mary Bowser," told the historically informed tale of an escaped slave who returned to the South to pose as a slave at the Confederate White House to spy on President Jefferson Davis. In her sophomore novel, Leveen employs the same rigor of research and analysis to Shakespeare—not only his era, but also his words.
Set in the violent and plague-ravaged city of Verona, "Juliet's Nurse" offers a fascinating prequel to the much familiar story. Grieving the loss of her own day-old infant, the nurse is ushered into the rich and powerful Capalletti's house, to serve as wet-nurse for the newborn Juliet. Over the next fourteen years, the nurse becomes privy to the rivalries, jealousies and darkest secrets of the wealthy ruling class, intrigues only hinted at in Shakespeare's play.
Of course, we all know how this story ends. Following the young lovers' death in the play, Shakespeare gives the nurse the largest number of lines, a fact which Leveen has taken advantage of. Some might argue that the Shakespeare's nurse, who didn't appear to share Juliet's lofty ideas of love (her bawdy references to the sexual aspects of love are quite famous) is at odds with Leveen's nurse, who although clearly enjoys sex and is quite sexually aggressive, also privileges love above all, and seems complicit in bringing about the tragic end. Even so, while Leveen has clearly captured the spirit of the age (historically speaking), her goal here seems less about embodying Shakespeare's characters exactly, than in creating a new lens by which to experience the time-tested love story. To that end, "Juliet's Nurse" is a stunning success.
Second Sunday with Lois Leveen
2 pm. Sun., Nov. 9
Deschutes County Public Library, 601 NW Wall St.