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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

The crime’s the thing — and so’s the cover-up — in M.L. Rio’s audaciously entertaining If We Were Villains (Flatiron Books, digital galley). Imagine Donna Tartt’s The Secret History set at an elite arts conservatory in Illinois, where the acting students are obsessed with all things Shakespeare. By the fall of 1997, the seven fourth-year students — all bright, young things — know each other so well they can predict who will play what roles in an upcoming production of Julius Caesar. What they cannot predict is that their onstage parts soon will spill over into real life: lovers will fight one another, friends will betray friends, someone will end up dead.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First-time author and former actor Rio structures her literary thriller like a five-act Shakespearean drama, beginning with a prologue as former student Oliver Marks is released from prison after serving 10 years for murder. Waiting for him is the retired detective who initially worked the case and who wants to hear what really happened after the cast party a decade ago. Oliver then unfolds in flashback a story of love and friendship, obsession and deceit, with passions and secrets worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

For theater nerds and Shakespeare fans, the book is enthralling. An account of the three witches scene from Macbeth staged lakeside on Halloween night offers midnight magic. A production of King Lear features a set of mirrors reflecting the constellations of the night sky. Still, Rio is so well-versed in the plays that the students often speak to each other in pertinent quotes, and there’s no stopping for footnotes. Here’s Henry V, Pericles, A Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida. One moment leading man Richard is spouting  “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy” from A Comedy of Errors, and in the next, seductive Meredith is running to the lake proclaiming “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” from The Merchant of Venice.

It’s a credit to Rio’s writing style that these bits of poetry and prose enhance the narrative for the most part, that it seems normal for Oliver to think of Hamlet upon the discovery of a classmate’s body. These kids live and breathe Shakespeare, and all the world’s their stage. “One sin, I know, another doth provoke; Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.”

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vinegarAlthough Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”

Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”

This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”

A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.”  The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.

Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?

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