We giggled a little when our teacher explained the bawdier lines in Romeo and Juliet, our junior high selves shocked that someone as hallowed as Shakespeare used dirtier jokes than we did. Those lines come to life when read by people other than ninth graders stumbling over iambic pentameter for the first time, and I finally understood how funny Romeo and Juliet could be when I saw the Baz Luhrmann version. Mercutio has always been my favorite character, but Juliet’s nurse matches his quick tongue barb for barb.
Lois Leveen deepens the story of the nurse in Juliet’s Nurse. The historical fiction novel is superbly rendered with sensual details that allow readers to delve into the life of the nurse as she moves between her world of poverty and the lavish world into which she is thrust when she becomes a wet nurse for Juliet Cappelletti.
The reader meets Angelica, the nurse, in the days before she becomes Juliet’s wet nurse, and the story is truly hers. Her visceral, emotional tie to Juliet is immediate, and it deepens throughout the novel, the tentacles of their connection twisting the two of them together for far longer than the typical relationship of a child and a wet nurse.
To be truthful, I don’t know enough about the practice of wet nurses to know why the wet nurse wouldn’t translate to a normal nanny-like position, because Lady Cappelletti definitely doesn’t invoke much confidence as a mother. That was one of the questions I had as Angelica schemes to keep her position near Juliet.
I’ve read similar types of historical fiction, where the story in question is almost a prequel to an established work of fiction. Romeo and Juliet has the sort of recognition that I don’t think I’m dropping spoilers when I mention I was curious to see how the ending of Juliet’s Nurse would compare to the tragic, Shakespearean ending. It’s impossible for me to read this type of book without the eventual end in mind.
One of the things I adore about the Luhrmann version is the way the original language is retained, with the setting modernized. I thought Leveen did a wonderful job of keeping her prose in the same tone as the original work without feeling contrived.
The heart of this tale is the relationship between Juliet and Angelica, and the way their bond twists — and sometimes strangles — the relationships they have with other people in their lives. Shakespeare’s nurse is obviously devoted to her charge, but Juliet’s Nurse really deepens the influence the nurse has on Juliet and the entire household.
I also really appreciated Leveen’s take on Friar Lorenzo, the man who plays such an important role in the marriage of the young lovers and Juliet’s misguided plan to trick her family into believing she’s dead. Tybalt is another character who is really transformed in this book, where he becomes so much more than a vengeful, sword-happy plot device.
A little complaint I have with the book comes after the story’s conclusion. The Author’s Note calls Romeo and Juliet “the world’s most cherished love story,” and I can’t help but cringe at the idea that the world’s most cherished love story is basically immediate infatuation, all sorts of missed communication, and death. (I made sure to have conversations about this when teaching.) Let’s find better romantic inspiration.
Overall, I think Juliet’s Nurse is interesting and beautifully written, and it will appeal to historical fiction fans and anyone who loves — or hates — the original Romeo and Juliet. After all, the two emotions are eternally entwined, both in Shakespeare’s version and in Leveen’s.
Do you consider Romeo and Juliet a full-blown love story?