The Short Version: Leo and Xeno are childhood best friends – but when Leo’s manic jealousy gets the better of him in adulthood, believing that Xeno is having an affair with Leo’s wife, it splinters not only their friendship but Leo’s family. But all that is lost can be found again and, some sixteen years later, a young girl named Perdita and a boy named Zel fall in love – and bring two families back together again.
The Review: Covers are cool. On the one hand, you’re paying homage to the original – but on the other, you’re pushing yourself into the continuum and the conversation by claiming a little bit of that original for yourself. Sometimes the cover is better (Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”), sometimes it’s a fun reimagining (Ryan Adams’ “1989” full-album-cover or the Phish Halloween shows), and sometimes it’s a disaster (…more often than bears mentioning). But it’s always a bold move – and Hogarth is taking boldness to another level with their Hogarth Shakespeare series, having authors cover perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived. It’s tremendously exciting and I’ve been champing at the bit for the series to debut for quite a while now.
But sitting here with an early copy of Jeanette Winterson’s riff on The Winter’s Tale, I’m left with a few questions about how I, as a reader, will interact with these books. You see, I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd – I’ve studied him, performed in his plays, and I work for the people who do Shakespeare in the Park every summer. I know my Shakespeare (mostly – there are a few of the more obscure plays… but anyway, I digress) and while I’m excited to see how he is transformed by this amazing roster of writers, I’m also a little nervous.
And with The Gap of Time, I couldn’t help but be a little judgey at times. Some of this has nothing to do with Winterson’s actual “cover” but of her winking cuteness at times, going so far as to reference and quote from The Winter’s Tale and other Shakespeare throughout – and having the characters acknowledge it. But it’s a little too much art, not enough matter when characters who are living out the plot of The Winter’s Tale know it well enough to quote from it / recognize the quote… and then not also recognize the story they’re living out. There’s a guy named Autolycus, for crying out loud – that’s not a terrible popular name these days. Every time one of these little Easter eggs showed up, it was like I could feel Winterson elbowing me to make sure I got what we were doing here. This authorial pushiness made a little more sense retrospectively, as Winterson ends her cover with a very Shakespearean direct address that explains her passion for this particular play… but I could’ve done without it, frankly. I don’t need to know how clever you are for covering Shakespeare – I already know you must be clever, because Hogarth chose you. Just do the cover and crush it.
As for the novel itself, the story remains nearly completely intact. There’s a helpful primer at the beginning, under the subheading “The Original” that lays out the plot and characters of Shakespeare – and this, I think, will be helpful to those less familiar with the play (and who besides Shakespeare nerds really knows The Winter’s Tale? It’s not Two Noble Kinsmen or Pericles but, I mean, it’s not R&J either.) as they wade into a story that kicks off with a bang.
Winterson’s decision to begin the story as she does, with the scene that (in the play) ends Act One, is inspired. It’s a jolt of action and a cliffhanger that makes us wonder how this story is going to play out. I was drawn in immediately, both as a reader and as a Shakespeare fan, because while I recognized the moment itself, it had been pulled out of its typical context and given new life. My excitement over “oh, how will she do this?” took over and, for a time, it was rewarded amply.
The decision to deepen the relationship between Leo and Xeno to that of boyhood lovers definitely raised the emotional stakes – but it also makes Leo’s paranoia even more ridiculous than the paranoia of Leontes. Winterson dabbles with the idea that MiMi and Xeno might’ve been a better pair but she doesn’t commit to it, perhaps for fear of straying too far from the source. A shame, because this trio is captivating. MiMi is a French pop sensation, Xeno a peace-loving game designer, and Leo a barely-ethical businessman – and they, all three, love and repel each other. There are moments when their interactions shine so bright, you want to ignore the… less bright other moments.
I’m trying to decide if Leo’s constant needling of his assistant Pauline for her Judaism is… a Shakespeare reference (plenty of anti-Semitism back then), an attempt at gutter humor, or something else altogether. I’m not one to call for the PC police but Leo’s awkward and continual bold-faced “is this because you’re Jewish” jarred me every time it happened. Her Judaism had no bearing on her character other than allowing her to use some Yiddishisms now and again and we’d already established that Leo was an insensitive and kind of crazy asshole – this constant refrain, unpolished as a bad standup joke that you hear again and again, made me quite frankly a little uncomfortable. So too did things like the description of the Moon as Earth’s autistic twin (so many things on so many levels with that one) and an off-hand reveal at the end of the novel about a minor character being transgender, which, while I can see how it might’ve been a nod to Shakespeare’s love of characters who cross-dress, rang a dissonant note in this text. I gasped at some of the more tone-deaf moments, especially coming as they often did right before or after something much stronger.
These clunker moments are a shame, because there is a beautiful heart underneath everything in this book. The update of Bohemia and Sicilia to be a New Orleans-equivalent and London was delightful and made for the same disparity of color and attitude that the play provides. Perdita’s story will never not be moving and Shep, perhaps the best character in the book, made me smile every time he appeared. The pain and loss – not the crazy jealous moments, but the smaller and more human ones – felt by Leo (hurting Xeno, losing Milo, losing MiMi) are vividly and delicately rendered. And Xeno’s game is the most brilliant kind of cover: it ties a string to the original idea and then runs off on a tangent, so that the original is still connected but the new idea is unexpected. It updated the magic of Shakespeare’s ending in a way that kept the reality established in this cover story while also tipping the hat to perhaps this play’s most well-known image.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Sometimes covers are immediately better than the original, sometimes they’re awkwardly misguided… and often they fall somewhere in the middle. Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale is definitely one of those middle covers. She brings some inspired ideas on how to update, transmutate, and validate the original Shakespeare – but she also can’t help pointing out how clever she is and reminding the reader with bright flashing neon about what we’re all doing here in the first place. It’s a bold choice to debut the Hogarth Shakespeare series and while it might not bring the crowds that Atwood, Nesbø, or Flynn will bring… they also have The Tempest, Macbeth, and Hamlet on their side. Winterson does a decent job with a difficult play and I can’t wait to see how the series progresses.