I am an admitted Shakespeare geek, and Hamlet has long been my favorite of all of his plays. I am always intrigued by adaptations and reimaginings of his works and characters, though I fear my standards are often a bit unrealistically high.
Honestly, I wavered between giving this three stars or four stars. As I have spent the last several weeks reviewing numerous essays for my first class of AP Language and Composition students, abiding by the mantra of those who read the annual exam essays for The College Board each year, which is, “reward them for what they do well,” I initially determined to err on the side of generosity. So, four stars. But as I composed the remainder of the review, I came back to three stars. I’m still undecided and wish there was a half-star option (for three-and-a-half stars).
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a quick, light read; I covered most of it one Sunday evening and finished it the following Saturday morning as I enjoyed my first cup of coffee. The story did drag in places, and unfortunately the final third of the book is where most of that occurred. This is also where we completely leave the framework of Shakespeare’s play in the rearview mirror, though that was beginning to happen in Part 2. And it is not the setting of Part 3 to which I object, nor the introspective nature of Ophelia’s initial time there. (Some reviewers have eschewed what they feel is a treacly “finding God” subplot, but I did not perceive that the focus was especially on “finding God,” namely because it is mentioned only intermittently and really isn’t ever resolved.) Part 3 did not work as well for me because I felt Ophelia suddenly lost her agency and her voice, and it did not read as a byproduct of her grief. To have planned her escape from Elsinore and braved the dangers she did in doing so, the shift she made upon entering the convent felt uneven, at best. In trying to make her a complex character, there were too loose threads and differing quasi-relationships floating around — and yet most of that time, it seemed that the convent was made up of Ophelia and only five or six nuns. And while I understand the point of the Therese’s storyline and what purpose it was meant to serve for Ophelia’s character arc, I felt it was the weakest part of the book, rambling along more than was justified by its conclusion.
There are places where some events stretch the credulity of the reader (the ease with which a pregnancy is hidden — with no particular effort — for all but the last month or two comes to mind), places where troubles and conflicts resolve a bit too neatly or suddenly, and places where conflicts are seemingly thrown in for interest and then simply dropped or forgotten. (Edmund, anyone? He is a character I feel could be removed without altering the story one whit. Even the purpose he supposedly serves in Part 2 lacks real merit, in my opinion. Ophelia’s own paranoia would have been as effective and less distracting while serving the same purpose in advancing the plot, and that would have added another layer to the question of how one defines madness.)
For me, Ophelia’s concerns over keeping her identity and past hidden so long after the storyline we know at Elsinore comes to its inevitable end did not feel they had enough foundation to be as grave as they were. For it is only in the final twelve pages of the novel, after Marguerite reveals what she knows of then-Prince Fortinbras (now ruler of Denmark) and Horatio shares news of the rumors in Denmark of a secret heir, that one feels maybe — maybe? — Ophelia could have (does have?) some real justification for her fears. And speaking of Marguerite, her sudden revelation about her origins beggars belief a bit. A disowned and forgotten princess? Really? Even mildly disgraced princesses had their value on the marriage-as-alliance market.
And yet for this to be the author’s first novel, and in spite of my criticisms, I am not dissuaded from looking into some of her subsequent novels — particularly as she has returned to the Bard more than once for inspiration, and I see she took on the Lost Colony as well. Stay tuned...