The marvelous and talented Asha Doré reviews the brilliant and unstoppable Lois Leveen‘s second book, Juliet’s Nurse, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet from a different perspective.
Review of Juliet’s Nurse
by Asha Doré
After losing her six sons during a plague that swept through Verona years before, Angelica gives birth to her seventh child, a daughter, who dies shortly after she is born. The same day, Angelica leaves her own birth bed and enters the birthing suite of Ca’ Cappelletti, where she is hired as a wetnurse. Juliet is placed in her arms.
Angelica muses on the nursling, “Juliet — a little jewel. No ruby, no sapphire, no diamond could dazzle more. My little jewel and I are as eager for each other as young lovers.”
These lines, which introduce the relationship between Angelica and Juliet, also introduce the reader to some of the central mediations of the novel, Juliet’s Nurse, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: What is the value of the love between mother and child? And what is true nature of affluence
Opening fourteen years before Juliet meets Romeo, the novel begins with Angelica, her life divided between two homes. Angelica leaves the vast, heavily adorned chambers she shares with Juliet at Ca’ Cappelletti to visit her husband in the small, working-class apartment where she made a home for thirty years. As Angelica moves between these two houses, escaping Ca’ Cappelletti both physically and through her memories, she navigates the class systems in place in Verona, interrogating the intricacies of being a mother of wealth versus a mother of limited means. Despite or maybe because of the tragedies that Angelica has endured, her love for Juliet engulfs her heart, her mind, and her whole life – as well as providing her livelihood. The wages Angelica earns caring for Juliet pay the rent on her husband’s apartment.
The contrast between material and emotional abundance is a recurring examination throughout the novel. As Juliet’s baby teeth begin to sprout through her gums, Angelica loses her teeth from getting caught in a random street brawl and the infection that follows. When Lady Cappelletta describes how she was married to Lord Cappelletto as a payment for a hunting dog her cousin killed, Angelica thinks, “A deer, a dog, a daughter: are the rich so muddle-headed from all they possess that they think such things are equal…?
And when Lord Cappelletto instructs Angelica to wean Juliet, Angelica thinks, “Weaned…As if what flows between milk-mother and milk-daughter can be cut off with a single word.”
These meditations ripple throughout the first half of the novel, embedding us in the world of Verona and illuminating what it means to truly love. The second half of the novel brings us closer to the story we recognize: Juliet is fourteen and preparing, with her nurse and mother, for a masquerade ball. The feud between Tybalt and Mercutio has been introduced, and Romeo enters Juliet’s world.
This story told from Angelica’s point of view gives us further insight into the characters who were introduced as children in the beginning of Juliet’s Nurse and who operated in the margins of the classic tale: Tybalt, Mercutio, Lady Cappelletta and Lord Cappelletto, Count Paris, and the Friar. The lyric language used to create Angelica’s voice retains the dialects of the time as it weaves each of these characters, who were somewhat flat in the Shakespearean version, into whole, dynamic people, outlining their tragedies and vulnerabilities in a way that could only be brought to light through the perspective of the nurse, a character on the margins herself.
The book is not a retelling as much as it is a reinvention. If Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time, then the love story in Juliet’s Nurse is the deepest and perhaps the most tragic. Love is embedded in every scene, every metaphor, but this love is not the young, fraught romance between Romeo and Juliet. It is another kind of love: the lines spun between mother and child. It is the kind of love that both brings us into the world and fixes us to it, for as long as we choose to stay. In Angelica’s words, “Loving what’s in this life is our only remedy for death. But…the more you love, the more you have to lose.”
To purchase the book, go to Powell’s.