Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Tutor

Title:  The Tutor
Author:  Andrea Chapin
Publication Information:  Riverhead. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594632545 / 978-1594632549

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "Flies were at him, but the larger animals hadn't gotten there yet."

Favorite Quote:  "I have a million reasons but no good answer."

Two period of time in William Shakespeare's life are hidden in mystery. Very little is known about the time between his leaving school in 1578 to his marriage in 1582 and then again from 1585 to 1592. In 1592, Shakespeare became part of London society and gain recognition as an actor, playwright, and poet.

This book creates a fiction for the year 1590. For its inspiration, it uses Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis, which appeared in print in 1593. That narrative itself is based on passages from Ovid's epic Metamorphoses. Venus and Adonis picks up on the myth of a goddess who falls in love with a mortal and delves into the different aspects of love.

The fiction of The Tutor places William Shakespeare at a countryside estate in the position of tutor to the boys of the household. There, he meets Katherine, a family relative in residence, a young widow dependent on the care of the household. She came to the family at a young age, when her own family perished in a fire. She left upon her marriage, but returned shortly thereafter, widowed. Katherine is well read and well educated, finding a fulfillment in books that has eluded her in the rest of her life. She is captured by Will's words and helps him develop his poetry - the poem Venus and Adonis.

Surrounding them is the history of the times. The estate and the family is a Catholic one. The Protestant Queen seeks to hunt down what she views as rebellion. Within the family, too, there is discord - marital issues, quarrels between family members, questions of inheritance, and differences of religion. Katherine is part of the family but also serves the role of observer of family and history.

The first half of this book is a period piece, drawing a carefully researched picture of the times. It describes the politics, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and the customs of the time including dress, language, and dance. The story of Will and Katherine is there, but it seems secondary to the historical setup. I found myself looking up terms like Gramercy (thank you), bone farthingale (a hoop to hold the shape of a dress), virginals (a musical instrument), volta (a dance), cordwainer (a shoemaker), and others. The book does come across as quite well researched. However, simpler words would not have taken away from the story and made it considerably easier to read. If complete historical accuracy was the goal, a glossary would have helped.

The second half of this book reads like a romance. The history is left by the wayside as the book jumps into the depths of emotion - love, lust, jealousy, and anger. Katherine's characterization seems completely different from the first half to the second. In the first, she seems measured, thoughtful, and learned. In the second, she comes across as a school girl with a wild, uncontrollable crush - and a modern one at that. The dichotomy is quite dramatic and striking.

The book presents two characters from history - William Shakespeare, of course, and master mason, Robert Smythson. Each man seems presented as the antithesis for the other. Robert Smythson is shown as quiet, honorable, and strong - a gentleman and a gentle man. I wonder if he was indeed as noble and good as he is portrayed.

William Shakespeare, by contrast, is depicted as a selfish, lecherous man who uses anyone and anything to forward his own ambition. He is cast in a negative light, which gets more and more negative as the book goes on. It does not leave an image of genius burning (which is sometimes offered as an excuse for bad behavior) but rather of an unsavory character best left behind. The depiction of both Smythson and Shakespeare is one dimensional - giving vs. self-centered, calm vs. impulsive, and gentleman vs. rogue. Life and people are rarely that simple. Given the characterizations, the ending of the book was predictable.

The book is a very quick read for its almost 400 pages. Unfortunately, I just could not get beyond the simplified characterization.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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