On the Same Page: Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

A couple of years ago, April of 2013, I came up with the idea of “On the Same Page” during a discussion with friends. I conceived of it as a way to make book discussions happen, by announcing what I would be reading ahead of time and inviting others who were interested to read the same book in the same time frame, so we could talk about it. Not quite a read-along, just a sort of “heads up” for people whose TBR looks a lot like mine.

I did four On the Same Page posts in the fall of 2013; there were some good short conversations, and I liked the results. Easier to follow than Twitter conversations, without the pressure of a review deadline. At least one other blogger tried the same thing for a little while. But then stuff happened, my blogging mojo waned, the usual. Now I’m resurrecting the idea.

Book Cover is J. W. Waterhouse, The Soul of the RoseWhen I did my little Twitter poll to choose a book for this month’s TBR Challenge “impulse book” read, a couple of people commented that they had, or were interested in, Mistress Shakespeare, by Karen Harper. Harper is a best-selling author, primarily of mystery/suspense novels. When this book was published in 2009, she was best known for her Queen Elizabeth I mystery series. I have never read a book of hers, and I know that the only reason I own this book is that it was on sale and that it has one of my favorite Waterhouse paintings, “The Soul of the Rose,” on the cover.

I’m probably going to read this book in September. From September 10th to the 20th I am doing a lot of traveling, so any reading will be Kindle and blog posting will be even less likely than usual. There’s a TBR challenge review during that time, with the “historical” theme, but I have something else planned for that slot. So my thoughts on Mistress Shakespeare will probably be posted sometime towards the end of the month. Plenty of time to jump on board, if you have this book or think it looks interesting. (It’s a little pricey in e-book, but used print copies are cheap.)

Summary (from Amazon.com):

In Mistress Shakespeare, Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley reveals intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway of Shottery. The clandestine Whateley/Shakespeare match is a meeting of hearts and heads that no one—not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters—can destroy. From rural Stratford-upon- Avon to teeming London, the passionate pair struggles to stay solvent and remain safe from Elizabeth I’s campaign to hunt down secret Catholics, of whom Shakespeare is rumored to be a part. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will’s first plays and, as he climbs to theatrical power in Elizabeth’s England, they fend off fierce competition from rival London dramatists, ones as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne’s heartrending story to life. Spanning half a century of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and sweeping from the lowest reaches of society to the royal court, this richly textured novel tells the real story of Shakespeare in love.

TBR Challenge: Why Didn’t I Read This Sooner?

The theme for August is “Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!).” I decided to choose among six books that I bought nearly six years ago at an independent bookstore; they were on a sale table. All six were some version of historical fiction, all by women authors whose work I had not read, and all had really interesting covers. (And they have all been on my bookshelf since then, unread.)

A selection of historical fiction

A selection of historical fiction

I posted this photo on Twitter and asked for input, agreeing to read the one that the largest number of people thought looked the most interesting. From a pretty small sample of responses, the choice was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe, published in 2009 by Hyperion.


I have to talk first about what a beautiful book this is. I read mostly e-books these days, and usually when I read a printed book, I’m frustrated by its flimsiness (if it’s paperback) or unwieldiness (big hardbacks). This book is neither, and it is such a well-made and attractive book that I really enjoyed holding it and reading it. I’m sure the story is just as good in electronic format, but especially because this is a book about a book, the lovely print edition really enhanced my reading experience.

Beautiful endpapers

Beautiful endpapers

Evocative use of font

Evocative use of font

The main character in the novel is Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American Colonial History at Harvard in 1991. In the first chapter she sits for her oral qualifying exam, so for most of the novel she is a PhD candidate at the very beginning of the dissertation process — looking for a project. Connie’s mother, Grace, is a hippy single mother who moved to New Mexico when Connie started college. Early in the book she asks Connie to go to her grandmother’s (Grace’s mother) empty house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to clean it out and ready it for sale. The house has been vacant since Sophia (the grandmother) died, about 20 years before, and now it needs to be sold to pay accrued taxes.

Connie and Grace have a complex relationship. Grace is a free spirit, concerned with healing energies and auras, and Connie’s early years were spend in a commune near Walden Pond.  Connie is actively unlike her mother, working since childhood to be prepared, logical and orderly where Grace is free-spirited and impulsive. They are fond of, but bewildered by, each other. I thought their relationship was depicted really well; I enjoyed their loving conflict. Connie resents Grace putting her in the position of having to take care of the house business, but she agrees to do it.

The house is overgrown and spooky, with neither a telephone nor electricity. It is also still fully furnished and full of Sophia’s possessions. Connie plans to spend the summer living there, sorting through the contents and cleaning the place up, while still commuting into Cambridge for meetings with her advisory about her dissertation project.  Her plan takes a turn when, her first night in the house, she finds a key in an old Bible. Inside the hollow shaft of the key is a piece of paper bearing the words “Deliverance Dane.” Connie decides fairly quickly that this might be someone’s name, and so she begins researching to find out whom it could have been. She learns that Deliverance was accused of witchcraft and excommunicated during the Salem witch trials in 1692.

Running parallel to Connie’s story is the story of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her granddaughter Prudence, between 1681 and 1749. Prudence was a midwife, and Constance finds her diary while researching, but it really provides little insight into the questions about Deliverance. The book contains “interlude” chapters giving the reader glimpses of these other women’s lives; while Connie’s story proceeds in chronological order, the interludes do not, but instead sort of circle around Connie’s research and eventually come together in Deliverance’s execution for witchcraft near the end of the book.

The Physick Book mentioned in the title is Deliverance’s book, handed down to Mercy and then to Prudence. Connie and her academic advisor, Professor Chilton, come to believe that the book is in fact a spell book, and that Deliverance actually practiced a form of witchcraft. Chilton urges Connie to find the book and make it the center of her dissertation research.

Early in her search for Deliverance, Connie meets Sam, a restoration specialist working on the steeple of a local church. He helps with her research and they develop a romantic relationship. Then Sam meets with a horrible accident and is hospitalized, and Connie realizes that she needs to find Deliverance’s book in order to save Sam’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. The history is well-researched and fascinating, the academic research/detective work is involving, and the paranormal elements are handled with a matter-of-fact touch and an integration with the rest of the story that I appreciated. The romance doesn’t dominate the book, but it is important and satisfying. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was a best-seller, and I’m looking forward to reading the three books Howe has written since this debut.

The historical fiction aspect of this novel was a nice palate cleanser, showing that a good writer can add fictional elements to a historical setting without making bad history or erasing the authenticity of the historical experience. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the Salem witch trials that starts with the premise, “what if they were witches?,” and I’m really glad I read this one.

Standing Up

As you may well already know, there’s been a recent controversy in romance publishing about a particular book, For Such a Time, by Kate Breslin, published by Bethany House. The book was entered in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest and was a finalist in two categories, Inspirational Romance and Best First Book (the second an almost automatic effect of the first). Many people were outraged to learn that this book, featuring a romantic relationship between a concentration camp commander and a Jewish woman, was under consideration for the award. The book received positive coverage from RT and from Library Journal, and had overwhelmingly positive responses on GoodReads and Amazon, but that was when it was under the radar of anyone except readers of inspirational romance. Once it had broader exposure, others had a lot to say. Sara Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books wrote a letter to the RWA that really got the ball rolling, and soon there were a lot of other voices raised in criticism and condemnation.

I decided to read the book because I wanted to be able to say that I had; I wanted to be able to make criticism from an informed perspective. I was horrified by the premise, particularly by the idea that this situation could EVER result in a consensual romance — I have BIG ISSUES with power difference in romance. I even joined a group of other readers, some of them authors, who were reading the book at the same time and keeping a shared document of their reactions. I had requested the book from my local library, and that took a few days; I read what the others had to say, but couldn’t really contribute.

Then the book arrived, and I read the first few chapters. At this point, I wondered if I would have anything substantive to add to the discussion — others have expressed, eloquently, pretty much everything I felt about the first part of the book. I read a bit more, and it was just too much. I cannot bring myself to finish it, although I’m skimming to confirm various aspects.

However, conversation with others, especially Janine Ballard, convinced me that I should still write this post. I want to stand up and say “me too,” in solidarity with other voices. I want people to know that I, too, found this book offensive, and I think that its publication, the initial positive response, and the stubborn refusal of its author or publisher to see how offensive it is, are all signs worth noting and decrying.

First, I agree with others that the “Stockholm Syndrome” romance in this novel is not its worst aspect. Wendy points out that problematic power differences abound in romance, and Sunita notes that there are other instances of Nazi heroes in romance, so the book is hardly unique in that aspect. I still decry the severe power imbalance; Aric has literally the power of life and death over Hadassah/Stella, and i don’t think she has the freedom to make a real choice about how to respond to him. But the first few chapters, where she is wondering what will happen to her and why he is acting the way he is, and he is thinking about how beautiful she is, felt familiar from other romances. It takes a more skilled author than this one to bring such a pairing to a place where I believe that the heroine has both agency and other options, so that this is really a relationship she has freely chosen.
ETA: Keira Soleore has a great analysis of the romance, just posted today.

Far worse than this is the way that the Jewish faith and culture are misrepresented in this book. Errors of terminology, practice, thought and theology abound, although the author has supposedly researched extensively. I am not Jewish myself, and my undergraduate minor in religious studies is a few decades old, but it’s clear that the book presents a poor picture of what it means to be Jewish. For details, I suggest reading Laura Curtis’s excellent analysis. Janine also makes excellent points about this aspect, based on the part of the book she read, at Dear Author.

I also want to point out the response of some Christian readers who recognize the problems with this book. Emily put it really well in her letter to the publisher, and Kelly makes some excellent points in her review, too. From a theological studies perspective, I think the book, an “adaptation” of Esther, really perverts the source story. As Kelly says,

[A] “Christian worldview” of the Holocaust is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL, and it never will be.

The Holocaust is our EVER-LASTING SHAME of APATHY and SELFISHNESS and COWARDICE. Our story is the UTTER FAILURE to do what was right.

And you know what, Kate Breslin and Bethany House? That right there is THE OPPOSITE OF THE STORY OF ESTHER.

The worst, WORST thing from my perspective (as if all the above wasn’t bad enough) is how this book appropriates and then erases the horrible Holocaust experience. The author doesn’t just use a historical setting, she CHANGES HISTORY to give a “happy ending” to her novel that DID NOT HAPPEN in real life. Sunita’s response really sums up what I think needs to be said about this historical revisionism: “It’s one thing to alter facts to create a more real-feeling ‘truth.’ It’s another to write a lie to get your main characters to an HEA.”

I made myself skim the book, and I forced myself to read the “happy” ending. It made me ill. I’m going to borrow a quote from someone else for this, and you can read the rest on Joanne Renaud’s Tubmlr:

I just—don’t know where to begin to deconstruct with how fucking HORRIBLE this is. It’s bullshit on so many levels. It’s a shit sandwich, with a new layer of shit every time you look. It’s shit in infinite dimensions. It’s a shit tesseract!

This story completely co-opts the Shoah and turns it into a neutered, tacky soap opera where the Jews are stripped of their culture, religion and traditions and are turned into a mass of ambulatory MacGuffins that Aric and Hermann can fight over like they were in the last act of a Michael Bay movie. It rewrites history—it takes a very real genocide where millions of people were murdered viciously and brutally—and uses it for grist in a cheap melodrama where the real issue is just how a misunderstood Nazi gets to show everyone that he’s really a swell guy. It’s like someone turned the Killing Fields of Cambodia into a heartwarming, life-affirming musical comedy. It’s garbage.

So, yeah. This is an awful book. But it’s an awful book that a lot of people and publications liked, praised and recommended before anyone spoke up and said “it’s awful!” Until the day that Sara’s letter was published, this book had no reviews below three stars on Amazon, and most were four or five stars. And that’s why I felt the need to write this post, even though all I’m really doing is pointing to the comments of a lot of other smart people and saying “I agree.” Because the louder we are, the wider we reach, the better the chances that this won’t happen as easily again.