Oh dear. I have this feeling I should have run screaming from this book. But the premise both repelled and interested me. I do love a good time travel story. (A good time travel story.) I love the idea of going back and meeting, say, Shakespeare. Unfortunately, that’s not really what this book is about.
What the book is about is a self-centered and not very intelligent girl put into a ridiculous circumstance, and an utterly predictable doomed love story. Shakespeare is barely a secondary character, a cardboard cutout, almost uninvolved in the plot.
Yeah, this is gonna be long. Honestly, I’ve winnowed it down as much as possible – it really doesn’t deserve this much time and thought. But, to quote Opus the Penguin, “Lord, it wasn’t good.”
Here’s the deal. Miranda, a teenaged budding actress, is coerced by Stephen, a time traveler, to go with him back in time to the home of his aunt and uncle, where – conveniently – a young William Shakespeare has taken a post as schoolmaster. Young Will has evidently fallen under the sway of a renegade Jesuit and is considering becoming a priest himself. Miranda will pose as Stephen’s sister; his real sister is – conveniently – ill, and the aunt and uncle in question are – conveniently – estranged from the family, so that they won’t know the difference, he says. Miranda’s task is to use whatever means necessary to convince young Will that he ought to be a playwright, not a priest, and thereby save the world. By “whatever means” I mean sex, which, you know, priests can’t have and all.
I won’t even get into the whole can of worms surrounding free will and the gravity of persuading someone with a calling away from the priesthood – but it’s no small matter, and having been brought up Catholic I am made a little queasy by it. But let that bide. There’s plenty else to talk about.
I understand why the writer chose to plunk an idiot American girl down in this story: everything had to be explained to her and therefore to the idiot American reader. What makes less sense is why Stephen would choose an idiot American girl. Why did he not choose an English girl who might at least be familiar with the history? Why travel all the way to America at all (which did not exist yet, and where Stephen should have fit in even worse than Miranda should have fit into an Elizabethan household, but never mind)? Towards the end Miranda muses about how very very important Shakespeare is to her – which is not, by any means, the impression I had any earlier. Which is a bit backwards.
Some time at the beginning of the story is spent building up Miranda’s potential: she is the daughter of famous Shakespearean actors, and wants the same career for herself, but as the book opens has just given a disastrous first performance in her high school’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. Because of her parents she has been exposed to the language and the atmosphere from an early age. She’s not a bad actor – she did well, we are told, in Much Ado, and her teacher saw fit to put her in the lead role in Shrew (thought that could have been sucking up to the parents). She has been to Renaissance Faires. She should be familiar with the language: she should be able, especially in an immersive environment, to take what she knows and extemporize conversation, should be able to slip into some semblance of believable speech and behavior patterns.
She doesn’t. She somehow simultaneously fails to adapt and yet effortlessly fits in. Somehow, the obstacles she encounters are negligible. The alien clothes don’t trouble her – well, she has worn costumes before. (Never mind that they were costumes from high school productions, and probably not historically accurate.) The alien food doesn’t trouble her – well, maybe she’s too young to suffer the massive indigestion she probably should wind up with. The ale – the only beverage provided – does trouble her, which is played, apparently, for comedy (not that it was funny), but I have a hard time believing that even someone so young would be so stupid as to get snockered her first night in an alien and dangerous place. (Dearie, ale x several mugs = drunk, no matter what century you’re in.) Had she drunkenly given the show away, she would have not only put herself at risk – very real physical risk – but the man posing as her brother and probably the rest of his actual family as well. She seems to see the situation as not even as important as her high school play. She keeps forgetting not to say “yeah” and suchlike (again, this seems to be played for comedy), but accents don’t trouble her – and they should, because the Shakespearian accents she’s used to aren’t going to remotely resemble those of the people around her, and neither will the BFA’s she’s heard all her life. Realistically, she is going to sound outlandish to them. (See below.) For this reason alone her masquerade as Stephen’s sister is ludicrous – why are their accents so completely different?
The whole situation was left very fuzzy. Stephen traveled forward in time, he eventually reveals, so as to determine just how big a deal it would be if Shakespeare never wrote a word. So, of course he enrolled in a high school in Massachusetts.
Wha – ?
Now, it is indicated that Stephen has been in a position to observe Miranda and the rest of her classmates for months … but he never spoke to her before literally grabbing her and dragging her off to a portal to the 1580’s. Might it not have been wiser to approach her first? But no. The way he spoke to her, and then actually manhandled her – abducted her by force, in fact – was disturbing. His behavior was not calculated to encourage cooperation – and, too, it was completely outside the realm of acceptable behavior for an Elizabethan (or any other era’s) gentleman. Actually, it was punishable by law: kidnapping is a federal offense.
There are a hundred and one reasons I could list why Miranda was a ludicrous choice, but this is going to be long enough as is. But … Why was time travel involved at all? Why couldn’t Stephen just have his sister do the seducing, or if that offended his delicacy some other loose female? Or here’s a thought: why not use, oh I don’t know – the woman who will be Shakespeare’s wife? However you look at the Second Best Bed thing, still and all, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. I would think this might be of some relevance to someone wanting to convince the man not to go celibate. Or did Stephen – not so bright his ownself, it seems – not discover this small detail? It makes no sense – but allowing for this nonsense, why didn’t he at least pick a smart girl?
“I had no idea what mutton was; I only knew it tasted awful, especially for breakfast.” ~ Miranda
This moment was, for the record, that at which I stopped actually reading and started skimming. I am required to deal with enough idiots at work; there is no reason in the world I should choose to spend my leisure time with them. If it had merely been that Miranda didn’t know what mutton was, I might have kept plowing on. Mutton isn’t eaten a lot in the Northeast – I’ve never seen it in the store, only lamb; it’s a forgivable gap in knowledge. It was just the proverbial last straw.
The one reason that comes to mind for Stephen’s choice of Miranda is one which would have resulted in the following exclamation from her had I (God forbid) written this:
“You mean you picked me because you thought I was a slut?!” – followed by mayhem and bloodshed.
It took me a little longer to realize that the other side of this was almost as offensive:
“You mean you came up with this plan because you thought Shakespeare was a slut?!”
Stephen and the author both do seem to believe so. Granted, odds are pretty good in any age that a teenaged boy is going to be more than willing to sleep with any girl who offers – but the circumstances here aren’t exactly favorable: he is trying to decide if he has a calling, he is a gentleman, he is already in love with another girl, he has a position as a teacher in this household and swiving the master’s niece would be a Bad Thing… But he falls right in with the plan. As I mentioned, there’s not much work put into fleshing out the character; what there is presents him as an irreligious frivolous light-minded idiot.
I really don’t like it when that happens.
It’s on that thought that my rating for this lost one of its only two stars. Because really, that’s the underlying message: Shakespeare + random expendable pretty girl = no more priestly thoughts. I loathe the entire idea: the only plan the main male character can come up with is seduction; he believes that the 21st century is completely licentious, and therefore never considers that a girl all-but-randomly chosen might be a virgin. If this was meant to be a commentary of any sort, I don’t know what the author was trying to say. While Miranda was a virgin she wasn’t terribly troubled by what was being asked of her. Of course, it did take her quite a while to catch on to the fact that this is what’s being asked of her, so, again, not the sharpest blade in the drawer.
And of course, in the end, all of it was pointless; nothing Stephen or Miranda did really seems to have affected Shakespeare’s decision. Which thereby renders the entire book completely pointless.
Part of my argument that Miranda is indeed an idiot, or at least remarkably incurious: she should have been badgering Stephen – who does belong to the 16th century – about how he traveled forward in time, how he chose her (besides his low opinion of her morals), and how he even knew Shakespeare’s future was worth protecting in the first place. He is, after all, Will Shakespeare’s contemporary. Will is the same age as Miranda, and hasn’t written anything anyone knows about yet. I would think however dismissive Stephen was I wouldn’t get off his back until he gave me something: you dragged me – literally – out of my life into this, you are damn well going to tell me how and what that was based on. Miranda? Wanders about for at least a couple of weeks without questioning a thing: it was 40% into the book. Sorry, no. It’s too long for her to have waited (it makes no sense), and too long to have made me to wait.
The writing has a juvenile tone, which is appropriate in some ways to the juvenile whose head we occupy, and also I suppose could be said to be appropriate to the age group the book seems to have been written for (though I had to force myself to write that – for me, writing down to anyone of any age is a cardinal sin). The challenge this sort of choice presents to a writer is to keep the narrator’s voice age-appropriate while still seeing to it that the adults around her sound like adults. Here? They don’t. And they certainly don’t sound like Elizabethan adults. It’s awkward.
Which is the kindest word I can come up with for the book as a whole.
It is, perhaps, harsh for me to judge this little book by the same standards I would a serious historical novel. I was going to say I judge everything I read by much the same standards – but I realized that’s not entirely true. For me books aimed at a younger audience have if anything a higher standard to adhere to. Look at it this way: if this is the first experience a teenager has of Shakespeare, what is she going to take away from it? He was a not very interesting character who almost became a priest (which is not supported by historical evidence)? There is nothing in the discussion of him or his work that would send a reader off to find out why he’s so great. This isn’t to say that a book aimed at non-adults must instruct – but, in my opinion, they ought not to either give bad information or turn a reader away from learning.
Also? A book’s audience must be taken into account. A children’s book that contains a lot of profanity is not a very good children’s book, and a young adult book that advocates loose sex is not a very good YA. This is not only not a very good YA, it’s not a very good book.
My sighing prediction near the beginning was that as the book begins with Miranda’s self-flagellation about a botched job as Katherine, events in the past would teach her about the inner workings of Kate’s mind so that she would come back and give a second performance that would deserve a Tony Award.
Just for fun:
Stephen is touted in his introduction to the story as having a lovely British accent. Wrong.
From www.renfaire.com: “Proper Elizabethan language is not the modern ‘snooty’ English of many plays and movies, nor the drawn out cockney accent; proper Elizabethan is more akin to the speech of backwood communities on the East Coast of the United States, where language has not changed significantly since the founding of those communities.”
But from the Dialect Blog: “I have heard many people make the claim that ‘American English is closer to the language of Shakespeare than British English.’ That is misleading. In reality, Elizabethan English would have been radically different from the contemporary English spoken in both countries. Everything I have read suggests it would be most similar to Irish English, or perhaps some very strong West Country dialects. Furthermore, it had so many grammatical and syntactical features unfamiliar to contemporary English speakers that neither Brits nor Americans would have an easy time understanding your average audience member at the Globe.”
In related news: