Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a gift. It’s the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died of the plague at the age of 11, leaving behind his twin sister, Judith, older sister Susannah and mother, Agnes Hathaway. Clearly the book’s Agnes is wife Anne, and Hathaway’s real-life father’s will refers to Anne as Agnes. The book alternates between two timelines, the courtship of Shakespeare, then a tutor, and Agnes, several years his senior, and the progress from 11-year-old Hamnet’s awakening to his twin’s illness and his own succumbing to the plague.
Once you settle into the back-and-forth, the technique works. O’Farrell’s well-researched, intimate portrayals of daily life in 1560’s Stratford and, later, her pictures of the cacophony and filth of London are to be relished. But it’s O’Farrell’s deep dive into the family relationships, the poignancy of Anne’s separation as her husband’s work kept him in London, the poignancy of Hamnet’s death and the profound grief afflicting each, all bind the reader to the story. Four years later, the husband would write his play Hamlet. This historical novel is rich and rewarding, not to be missed.
Sometimes the greatest reading pleasures are found in older books. For me, during this bleak winter, this would include American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1998 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It wrestles with one of the questions I raised in my recent review of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: what has happened to America. Akhtar contemplates the rise of mercantilism and vulgarity culminating in the era of Donald Trump. Roth explores what happened between post-WWII golden optimism and the Vietnam War.
The main character, Seymour “Swede” Levov, is the gentle football hero who plays by the rules, smooths over interpersonal differences, works hard, does “the right thing,” and believes the best of everyone. His teenaged daughter, Merry, hates her “perfect” life because of America’s unjust war in Vietnam. This isn’t conventional teenage angst. Merry falls in with radicals, plants a bomb in the general store, and the resulting explosion kills someone. She goes on the lam, and, for five years, Swede defends her, blaming others for their undue influence. He comes to learn that Merry’s rage led to other deaths, that most of the people around him are not what they seem, and, most painful of all, that the good life and those who inhabit it are filled with lies, secrets, betrayals. At the end of the book, he learns what Roth describes as the worst lesson that life can teach – “that it makes no sense.”
Roth divides his book into three sections (Paradise Remembered, The Fall, Paradise Lost), conjuring up Milton’s Paradise Lost. Roth reads the Miltonian battle between good and evil as the struggle between “innocence and disillusion,” and the reader is left with the conflict between nostalgia for the mythologized past and the harsh realities of the present. Roth the writer, the story-teller, the observer and philosopher, at his best.
The Lying Life of Adults, the latest book by Elena Ferrante, is not an ordinary coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Giovanna, is just 13 years old, a good student, the only child of two professors in Naples, Italy. This book deconstructs Giovanna’s family, revealing its well-ordered existence is a façade. She overhears her father tell her mother that Giovanna has begun to resemble her aunt Vittoria, a hard, dangerous and ugly woman, something of a demon. Crushed, Giovanna uses her wiles to find this aunt, who is estranged for unspecified reasons, from Giovanna’s father. The story gradually unfolds, with each revelation contradicting what Giovanna’s parents have told her. Over several years of her adolescence, we learn the impact on her and her own voyage of self-discovery. Ferrante lays out the web of lies that adults use for their convenience or to make difficult situations more palatable, and what happens when the web of lies unravels. Does becoming an adult necessitate learning how to lie effectively, putting a new spin on hypocrisy and deception. Much to reflect on here.
Seven Years by Peter Stamm, an acclaimed writer from Switzerland. The title suggested to me the seven-year itch, when a marriage can run out of gas and either be renewed or dissolved. The book, published in 2011, is nothing so simple as that. We meet the narrator, Alex, as an architecture student in Munich in the late 1980’s. We also meet Sonia, his architect partner and eventually his wife, who is beautiful, smart, talented, affluent – check off all the boxes – and Ivona, an illegal immigrant from Poland, who is unattractive, reticent, intensely Catholic and significantly repressed. Despite the perfect world that Alex is building with Sonia, he is obsessed with Ivona, though the episodic relationship seems to be only about occasionally abusive sex, often followed by long absences. Never does he see her in public. She is his dirty little secret, except that, as the years go by, Sonia learns about Ivona. Alex repeatedly breaks off his relationship with Ivona, whom he gets pregnant. Because Ivona is illegal and teetering on the edge of poverty, Sonia agrees to raise the baby with Alex, and Ivona never connects with the daughter.
Alex and Sonia present as “beautiful people.” They debate what constitutes beautiful buildings versus practical, marketable buildings. They find beauty in cold, formal buildings, the purest form. They ping-pong between conflicting emotions, love and disgust, beauty and estrangement, synthesis and antagonism. Frankly, Alex is a self-absorbed, self-pitying irresponsible man, and as a captive of his own obsession, he is unpleasant much of the time. He wallows in his existential angst but never gets beyond it to shape his own destiny. Still, at the end, we want to reread the book to see what else we can figure out about these complex characters.