Innovative and ambitious, this portrait of young Will Shakespeare doesn’t quite succeed.
Assisting his improvident father, a Stratford glover, Will dreams of escaping to become an actor. He gets his wish when a midnight rendezvous with one of the Hathaway sisters goes awry, and his father sends him to London to negotiate a debt. Concurrently, left to shift for herself after her father’s death in prison and her mother’s suicide, young Londoner Meg survives by petty crime until she’s offered employment by kindly innkeepers. Will and Meg meet, but Meg is too late to rescue him from thieves who prey on rubes. While Will frets about repairing his fortunes, Meg concocts schemes to make it happen. Soon, Will’s career as playwright and actor takes off, and Meg—thanks to her quick wit and acting chops—serves as his muse. Meg’s an appealing character, but naïve and selfish Will’s hard to like. Labored subplots based on mistaken identity and cross-dressing slow the action considerably. Meant to evoke the Bard of Avon’s comedies, they clash with the vivid portrayal of the harsh Elizabethan world and Meg’s brutal past depicted elsewhere in the novel. What’s hilarious (to some) onstage is problematic in fiction with an otherwise realistic bent.
Risk-taking and thought-provoking fiction, best suited to readers who cherish Shakespearean slapstick. (author’s note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 14 & up)