Lois Leveen has successfully crafted a gripping historical novel with Juliet's Nurse, taking the reader back to 1360, just after the plague has wiped out half the population in Europe. As an RN, I was intrigued with the title and the fictional story behind Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
This novel is primarily about a poor, grief-stricken couple, Angelica and Pietro. I felt Angelica's despair and that of her devoted husband after losing their six sons to the plague, all in less than a week. Their small cottage...once so full of life, and love became a place of mourning. Pietro is a beekeeper and confectioner. Each night they eat his confectionaries, and honey. Angelica gains weight, yet never suspects she is pregnant, believing her days of child-bearing are behind her. She blames her widening girth on the extra sweets they are consuming.
Each of their sons had been robust from birth; her labors had been routine and uneventful. This surprise labor is long and difficult. Their new baby girl, her first daughter, barely draws a breath when Pietro hurries her off to the church to be baptized. Angelica's heart breaks with the news her baby died. Pietro then informs Angelica that she will be the wet nurse to the newborn daughter of the wealthy Cappelletti family whose baby girl is born the same day as their baby.
Angelica reluctantly moves into the Cappelleti home, and her love for the infant immediately becomes obsessive. The lady of the house is distant and cold in her dealings with all others. The contrast between Angelica and Pietro's marriage and that of the wealthy Cappellettis is painfully obvious. Angelica convinces the family of the advantages of having a bee hive; and Pietro provides and services the hive. The wet nurse and the beekeeper create moments of marital bliss every chance they get. Pietro becomes a father figure to baby Juliet and her live-in nine year old male cousin.
The violence and intrigue between the wealthy ruling class families of the city of Verona is reminiscent to today's politics, only now there seems to be even more layers of deceit. Even though we know what will happen when Shakespeare's Juliet meets Romeo, the depth of their youthful love is as tragic in this story as it has been down through the years.
Leveen's pacing keeps readers turning the pages in anticipation and she doesn't disappoint. Plot twists keep the story focused as well-developed characters make the novel relevant even seven hundred years later. I believe it's impossible to read without comparing the horrors of the plague in 1300 to the ravages of Ebola in certain African countries today.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Lois Leveen's work has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly journals, as well as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and on NPR. Lois give talks about writing and history at universities, museums and libraries around the country. She lives in Portland Oregon. Visit her website.
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