The Short Version: Peter Byerly can barely function in the world since the loss of his wife. But when he stumbles across a portrait of her seemingly painted in the 1800s, he finds himself forced to reenter society and wrapped up in a mystery that might actually solve the mystery of Shakespeare’s true identity once and for all…
The Review: There is great debate in our society about the identity of the man who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Some believe that there’s no way an ordinary man could’ve done it and so it must’ve been royalty. Maybe it was Christopher Marlowe, faking his death to go return to the joy of writing. Maybe it was royalty, slummin’ it. Maybe it was actually just a really smart guy named Will. But there’s one thing for certain: we don’t know for sure. And the corollary to that: anyone who can prove it for sure will go down in history.
Charlie Lovett tackles the idea as means for a The Da Vinci Code-lite adventure – which, actually, makes me wonder why on Earth Dan Brown hasn’t attempted to really get his Shakespeare on yet. Shudder… Anyway, point being, you shouldn’t come to this book looking for much historical debate or strong character development or anything like that. It’s pretty much pulpy paint-by-numbers from start to finish, with a slight veneer of academic respectability.
And it should be said, Lovett has done his research. There are a series of scenes stretching from the late 1590s or so into the 1800s, tracing the ownership of this particular copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto – the poem that inspired Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The idea is that this copy that Peter finds might actually show a chain of ownership (trying not to spoil it too much) that’d trace us right back through Shakespeare himself – and prove that the man, William Shakespeare, did in fact exist and write these plays.
Not surprisingly, people don’t want this getting out – for one reason or another. Peter is a bookish type, more at home amongst his library stacks than out in the adventurous wilds and I’m not sure that I necessarily bought his swift transformation as the book goes on (or that I saw the need to follow the story of his courtship w/ Amanda, his late wife – it felt like a lot of Sparks-esque storytelling that, while fine, didn’t serve the primary reason I came to the story: the Shakespeare stuff). When he draws the ire of some more devious types – devious to the point of murder – he ends up way over his head and running into a couple altogether crazy adventures. He even picks up a plucky, cute British bird along the way to be his girl Friday and maybe his new romantic entanglement. It’s all very awwwww but also so predictable that you know how each and every character development is going to play out from the moment any given character is introduced. As my friend who lent me the novel said, it fails the Bechdel Test in an aggressive way and, I have to be honest, I noticed. No women characters seem to talk to one another, let alone about something other than a man, and those women are all pretty two-dimensional. They’re saved by virtue of the men also being pretty 2D.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. The book isn’t bad, by any standard. It’s just also not really that good. The predictability, the overly simple language, the jumps in plot… they make for a fine read, but it almost (dare I say it) felt like Dan Brown-lite at times. Which is kind of a sorry state of affairs, you know? The most interesting moments are certainly the historical inserts and I almost would rather Mr. Lovett turn his talents towards a full-on pastiche. But also, unless someone really tells me I ought to take the time, I probably wouldn’t pick it up either way. Wouldn’t warn folks away… but might just say that there are better ways to spend your literary time.