Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Beatrice and Benedick
One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Much Ado About Nothing, particularly because my mom loves the movie from 1993 starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (as well as many other well known actors!), and we've watched it often. So when I was exploring NoveList through my library's website (check your local library and see if they have access to this; it's amazing) and I saw Beatrice and Benedick as one of the recommendations under the criteria I had selected, I looked it up in our catalog immediately. We didn't have it, but one of the others in the system did so I requested it and waited excitedly.
It came in after the weekend and despite the fact that I'm also reading Anna Karenina on my Kindle, I started reading this. And I was in love right from the beginning. First, I was reading this in early April when it was still snowing regularly here in Wisconsin and the book takes place mostly on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean. I was drinking in the descriptions of the white beaches and blue sea, and all the fresh fruit they ate. Marina Fiorato is actually Venetian but she did Sicily justice.
If you know anything about the plot of Shakespeare's original play, you will adore this novel. It begins a year before his play opens, when the first meeting of Beatrice and Benedick happens. So much of this first meeting parallels the second one, as they are both so full of themselves and full of wit that they won't admit they are attracted to one another. Each of the other main players are here too, Hero the young maiden, Claudio her would-be husband, Don Pedro the Spanish prince, etc, etc. But there is something sinister going on beneath the fun, and only Beatrice seems to notice initially, guided by a young poet named Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza, who has Moorish blood in him. Many terrible things happen in the year between the title couple's first and second meetings. There's much enmity between the Spanish and the Sicilians, especially on the part of the Moors, who are of a dark skin tone and not wanted, which culminates in the fiery death of one character.. Plus the Spanish are on the brink of their invasion of England across the Channel (which we know from history was an utter disaster). Benedick, to impress Beatrice and possibly win her heart, joins the Knights of St James under Don Pedro and ends up on the fateful journey to England.
Quite frankly, there is so much going on in this novel, I can't put it much better than that without giving away important plot points. A few direct Shakespeare related things, though, need to be pointed out. First, Beatrice is from near Verona, and it is implied that the tale of Romeo and Juliet is happening at the same time, and is intertwined in some ways, which had me squealing with delight as I realized it. Second, the final few chapters of the book are so wonderful because it's basically the play being told, with many lines word for word, in prose form, and it's one I know so well that it was a beautiful closing. Third, the character of Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza is fascinating. I had initially thought he was supposed to be a created character that "was" Shakespeare within his story. Turns out I wasn't completely wrong. Something I never knew is that there are a few scholars who believe that William Shakespeare was actually from Sicily, named Michelangelo Crollalanza and that after certain events he fled to England and changed his name. Crolla-lanza literally means shake-speare. This theory isn't given a whole lot of credence, but it's certainly fascinating, especially in light of how he did set some plays in Italy.
So I loved the book and am looking forward to reading Fiorato's other novels, though they are not Shakespeare retellings. I encourage you to read this book. It makes you think, and is a fantastic tribute to the Bard.