A Fictional Book About Shakespeare's Son Helped Me Grieve the Loss of Mine

How one writer overcame the grief of losing his son while reading Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet.

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Books have seen me through the pandemic. It’s almost a cliché among bibliophiles, but each week I run across this sentiment on Twitter and Facebook, in long-distance phone chats, over brie and bottles of chardonnay in nearby Prospect Park. And then there’s the novel that sees you, almost literally, in this unprecedented year, plots mirroring the trajectory of your life, reversals of fortune identical to your own. Characters who glide off the page and sit on the edge of the bed, soothing your anxiety with whispered confidences―they complete your sentences, complete you.

Imagine my surprise when an Elizabethan odyssey became a roadmap through a year like no other.

In January I lost my 18 year old son, Owen, to sepsis; the infection swept in like a wildfire, ravaging his body and snuffing him out in under forty-eight hours. The previous week Covid-19 cases had peaked in the U.S. while violent insurrectionists had flooded into the nation’s capital. Grief–my grief–felt like a footnote to a vast malevolence, a ripple in a hurricane. The best way to mourn, I vowed, was to go off grid. I hunkered down in my Brooklyn apartment, throwing myself into a skeleton list of tasks: indulging my wife and two other teenagers with Indian take-out, double-masking at the gym, grooming the cats, hauling out garbage and recycling bins. And I read books—not only for work, but also for nourishment I craved but couldn’t quite understand. The less my mind rested, I figured, the less restlessness would surge through me, like a virus.

Which led me to Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet , published last year to universal acclaim and named one of 2020’s five best works of fiction by the New York Times Book Review. I was late to this stunning beauty, but in this case tardiness was a virtue: I picked up Hamnet at the moment I needed it most.

Knopf Hamnet

Hamnet

In precise, lavish detail, O’Farrell recreates the story of Shakespeare’s only son (also known as Hamlet), who succumbed to bubonic plague in 1596 at the age of eleven. She shifts between decades flawlessly, braiding the foreground narrative with the personal history of the enigmatic Agnes Hathaway, the Bard’s wife and mother of his three children. The abrupt subtraction of one. In O’Farrell’s telling the boy slips away fast. His father is summoned from the London stage and dashes back to the homestead in Stratford-upon-Avon but is too late. Agnes leans into her final maternal duty: she stitches Hamnet’s shroud, washes and dresses his body for burial.

“She begins at the face, at the top of him. He has a wide forehead . . . She dips the cloth, she washes, she dips again . . . The third finger of his right hand is calloused from gripping a quill. There are small pits in the skin of his stomach from when he had a spotted pox as a small child . . . Agnes looks at her son. The birdcage ribs, the interlaced fingers, the round bones of his knees, the still face, the corn-coloured hair, which has dried now, standing up from his brow, as it always does. His physical presence has always been so strong, so definite.”

I lacked Agnes’ resolve. After Owen passed away that bright cold January morning–measured in minutes, the stutter of alarms, ICU doctors yelling across a carousel of CPR–I came to his bedside. The tumult had ebbed away; there was a hush in the room. The physicians disconnected his ventilator and dimmed the monitors. His breathing tube stubbed out a few inches like a lopped umbilical cord, a smear of blood and gauze around the stoma. I touched his curls. He seemed himself, just asleep. Pink-cheeked, slack-jawed, lips a rosebud. Later his complexion would ashen, his tongue loll, slug-like, from his mouth.

Two nurses nudged me aside and asked whether they could clean him up before my wife arrived at the hospital. Fresh linens, a starched gown. I said yes, but that I wanted to wait out in the lobby, where for an hour I huddled over my cell, scrolling through contacts, veering from call to call. I must have spoken, in nervous fragments, to at least a dozen family members and friends, but I can’t say for sure. In Agnes O’Farrell captures that sense of light-headed disbelief, an instinct to connect what just happened with a larger story: there’s a global pandemic on and my son just died.

After Hamnet’s funeral, a torturous affair–Agnes is “hollowed out, her edges blurred and insubstantial”—her husband once again heeds the siren call of the theater. He can only mourn by going on with the show; he’s already mulling a new piece, a ghost haunting a disaffected Danish prince. The Bard’s daughters act out: Susanna tantrums while Judith, Hamnet’s twin, weeps in silence. Agnes hobbles around in a daze, immersed in country life, tending gardens, keeping bees in a skep. Only in the novel’s last pages when, years later, Agnes journeys to the Globe Theater to watch a performance of Hamlet , can she reconcile her tragedy with an art that transcends and sustains. The play’s the thing, with many allusions to her son. “The knowledge settles on her like a fine covering of rain,” O’Farrell writes. “Her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy.”

We seek that alchemy from our masters, Shakespeare to O’Farrell and beyond. We seek to be seen in our most private, stripped-down moments. Recently I was having drinks with an acquaintance, a writer, in a garden tucked behind a trattoria in Greenwich Village, when he asked how many children I had, boys, girls? I fumbled the tense— I have . . .uh . . . had three boys, but now only two —before segueing into a précis of my loss. He sat across a rickety table, eyes glistening with tears, but the moment wasn’t heavy, far from it—I’d learned a thing or two about subtraction from O’Farrell. Just now I’m holding the novel in my hand, flipping it open, and finding my reflection there.

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A former book editor and the author of a memoir, This Boy's Faith, Hamilton Cain is Contributing Books Editor at Oprah Daily. As a freelance journalist, he has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Health, The Good Men Project, and The List (Edinburgh, U.K.) and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. He is currently a member of the National Book Critics Circle and lives with his family in Brooklyn.  

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A Wisewoman in Stratford

January 14, 2021 issue

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Maggie O’Farrell’s moving historical novel Hamnet is a story of deep loss—the death of a child, struck down by an incomprehensibly virulent epidemic—and its impact upon a marriage that was already buckling under almost intolerable strain. The story’s surprise turn is that, though the grief-stricken wife succumbs for years to crippling depression and though the husband absconds and disappears into his work, the marriage miraculously survives, recovers, and becomes stronger. The wife and husband in question are Anne Hathaway (or Agnes, as she was named in her father’s will and as O’Farrell calls her) and William Shakespeare.

The novel begins in the provincial market town Stratford-upon-Avon, where the eleven-year-old Hamnet, the Shakespeares’ only son, is alarmed by the sudden eruption of strange symptoms on the body of his twin sister, Judith: “He stares at them. A pair of quail’s eggs, under Judith’s skin. Pale, ovoid, nestled there, as if waiting to hatch. One at her neck, one at her shoulder.” The swollen lymph nodes, or buboes—the dread signs of bubonic plague—seem to have come from nowhere, but in a tour de force of contact-tracing O’Farrell reconstructs the chain of random events and haphazard encounters that could have led the fatal bacterium Yersinia pestis to the Shakespeare house on Henley Street:

The flea that came from the Alexandrian monkey—which has, for the last week or so, been living on a rat, and before that the cook, who died near Aleppo—leaps from the boy [in Murano] to the sleeve of the master glassmaker, whereupon it makes its way up to his left ear, and it bites him there, behind the lobe.

And so it goes, on and on along trade routes by land and by sea, until it reaches Warwickshire in 1596.

To readers living in the shadow of a virus that made its way from a wet market in Hubei province to the nursing home around the corner, the story has a ghastly timeliness, though it is some consolation to note that the bubonic plague that struck Europe repeatedly from the fourteenth century onward was far more lethal than what we have been experiencing, and that, unlike Covid-19, it attacked the young and the old with equal ferocity.

O’Farrell brilliantly conveys the horror and devastation the plague brought to individual households—such as Shakespeare’s, as she imagines it—and to entire communities. There is no evidence of what actually killed Shakespeare’s son in 1596, but plague is a reasonable hypothesis. An outbreak in Stratford in 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, took the lives of around a fifth of the population, and the disease recurred throughout the century with nightmarish frequency.

The surviving records of Shakespeare’s life are scanty; those of his wife still scantier. At the age of eighteen he married a woman eight years older than he, and by the time he reached twenty-one, he had fathered three children. This much is clear. And then he evidently abandoned them, leaving them in Stratford, where he was born, and heading off to the capital to write or to act or to do whatever it was that he imagined he was going to do. True, as the years passed, he returned from London from time to time, presumably to visit his wife; his eldest daughter, Susanna; the twins Judith and Hamnet; and his aging parents. And, as his wealth increased, he sent money back to Stratford, resettled his family in a very large brick-and-timber house, and made a succession of local real estate and commodity investments.

To that extent he remained connected. But it is telling that there were no more children born to Agnes and Will, and there is no evidence that the busy playwright shared his rich inner world with his wife or that he involved himself in the daily lives of his offspring.

Archival records suggest that actors who came from the provinces more typically brought their families to London and settled them there. And if the sonnets have any autobiographical truth to them, his most intense emotional and sexual interests lay outside the bounds of his marriage. Between the family in the house on Henley Street in Stratford and the poet in his rented rooms on Silver Street in London, there seems to have been an almost unbridgeable distance.

Biographers presume that Shakespeare must have rushed home in 1596 when his eleven-year-old son Hamnet fell gravely ill from unknown causes, but even that is by no means certain. The boy died in August and Stratford was a two-day ride from London, so it is possible that when word reached the playwright it was already too late. Had there been any warning signs? Did he get the news by letter? Or did someone speak some such words as are heard in a brief exchange in The Winter’s Tale : “Your son…is gone.” “How, ‘gone’?” “Is dead.”

If these words from a late play are somehow linked to what Shakespeare actually experienced in 1596, they are displaced from autobiography and absorbed into someone else’s story; this is how the terrible news reaches a character named Leontes. There was no general inhibition in this period from writing directly from personal experience; quite the contrary. When an outbreak of bubonic plague took his seven-year-old son Benjamin, Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson gave voice in an exquisite twelve-line poem to his bitterly painful leave-taking:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;   My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,   Exacted by thy fate, on the just day. O, could I lose all father now! For why   Will man lament the state he should envy? To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,   And if no other misery, yet age? Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, “Here doth lie   Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,   As what he loves may never like too much.

It is striking that Shakespeare, as far as we know, left nothing comparable to so direct an expression of parental grief. Though this is the same author who wrote startlingly intimate poems to the young man and the dark lady and, in the words of a contemporary, circulated these “sugared sonnets among his private friends,” Shakespeare seems to have drawn an impenetrable curtain around his feelings, whatever they were, for his family.

In 1616, as he lay dying at the age of fifty-two, Shakespeare signed, in a shaky hand, a will that made many bequests, sentimental and otherwise. To his younger sister Joan he bequeathed £20 “and all my wearing apparrell,” along with the right to live in part of the house on Henley Street—the house in which she and her brother had grown up—for a nominal rent. To John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage, fellow actors and shareholders in the Globe Theater, he bequeathed twenty-six shillings and eightpence each to buy mourning rings, and he gave the same sum to his lifelong friend Hamnet Sadler “to buy him a ringe.” To Thomas Combe, the twenty-seven-year-old relative of a business associate, he left the sword that likely would have gone to his son Hamnet, had he lived.

These provisions—including the sum of £10 to “the poore of Stratford”—are the record of a thoughtful man who has accumulated a great deal of property to dispose of, from the “broad silver gilt” bowl in his grand house to the “barnes, stables, orchardes, gardens, landes, tenementes” that he owned throughout Stratford-upon-Avon and its surrounding villages. He was explicitly concerned to keep Thomas Quiney, the husband of his daughter Judith, from getting his hands on the money she would inherit. And he was equally explicitly concerned to settle most of his substantial estate on his elder daughter, Susanna, married to Dr. John Hall, and on her male heirs.

What is famously notable is the apparent absence of any significant bequest to his wife of thirty-four years. Various explanations have been offered, most plausibly that by custom and perhaps by law she would, as his widow, have been entitled during her lifetime to enjoy a portion of his estate. Still, a glance at comparable wills drawn up by people in Shakespeare’s milieu calls attention to what seems to be missing. From the will of his friend Henry Condell: “I give devise and bequeath all & singuler my freehold Messuages landes Tenementes and hereditamentes whatsoever…unto Elizabeth my welbeloved wife.” From the great actor Richard Burbage: “He the said Richard, did nominate and appoint his welbeloved wife Winifride Burbage, to be his sole Executrix of all his goodes and Chattelles whatsoever.” Likewise the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe: “I give and bequeath unto Agnes Henslow my loving wife, all and singuler my Landes, Tenementes, hereditamentes and Leases whatsoever.” William Bird, the lead actor in the Earl of Pembroke’s Men: “All other of my goods and chattells whatsoever…I give and bequeath unto my dearly beloved wiefe Marie Bird.” And the actor Thomas Downton, also of Pembroke’s Men: “I do make & Constitvte Iayne my welbeloved & Constant wife my sole Exectatrixe of all my personall Estate.” The list could go on.

The sense of something missing is heightened rather than relieved by a single line evidently inserted, after the document was already drawn up, into Shakespeare’s will: “I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture.” That’s it. No “loving,” no “dearly beloved,” no “well-beloved and constant,” let alone any hint of the sentiment that led his friend John Heminges to direct that he be buried as near as possible “to my loueinge wife Rebecca.” When Shakespeare contemplated his final resting place, he wanted only to lie undisturbed: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Maggie O’Farrell constructs a very different story from the unhappy marriage suggested, to me at least, by these scattered archival traces. To be sure, in her telling, the absent father does not return to Stratford in time to witness the terminal illness of Hamnet. He arrives in time only for the laying out of the corpse and the bleak funeral. Then, to the intense distress of his wife and muttering something inadequate about his theater company, his season, and his preparation, he soon leaves again for London. But that apparent abandonment is folded into what O’Farrell imagines as a story of deep, enduring love.

Though she is in a distinct minority, O’Farrell is not the first to imagine it so. Already in the nineteenth century some biographers suggested that the best bed would have been reserved for visitors and that the second-best bed must have had sentimental value. Hence, in Hamnet , Susanna takes over some of the household tasks from her grieving mother and, at her father’s bidding, buys new furniture for the house, but Agnes “refuses to give up her bed, saying it was the bed she was married in and she will not have another, so the new, grander bed is put in the room for guests.”

As for the absence from the will of terms of endearment, these are mere conventions, and the most eloquent writer the world has ever known would hardly have needed or welcomed recourse to such trite phrases. The deepest emotional bonds may be precisely those that are literally inexpressible. Within his own family O’Farrell’s Shakespeare—who is never referred to in the novel by name but only as “he” or “her husband” or “the father” and the like—is a man of conspicuously few words. Even his courtship of Agnes, as O’Farrell depicts it, is a string of monosyllables and silences: “‘I…’ he begins, without any idea where that sentence will go, what he wants to say. ‘Do you…’”

As O’Farrell acknowledges, her vision of the Shakespeare marriage is indebted to a 2007 book by Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife. In Greer’s account Agnes Hathaway Shakespeare was an impressive person who has been dismissed, belittled, and slandered by centuries of misogynistic male historians and critics. “The Shakespeare wallahs”—among whom, I regret to say, I prominently figure for Greer—

have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have then vilified the one woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him.

Speaking for myself, I never thought that Shakespeare was “incapable of relating to women,” only that he seems to have been incapable of relating to his wife. And I have never been inclined to vilify Agnes or to blame her in any way for her husband’s neglect or aversion.

With considerable energy and resourcefulness, Greer combs the surviving records for signs that Agnes was an accomplished and steadfastly loyal wife. Shakespeare scholars have not, so far as I know, embraced her suggestion that Agnes was responsible for the creation of the First Folio or that she may have written a still-undiscovered will leaving money “in trust to be spent on further publishing of her husband’s work,” but O’Farrell, for one, has been inspired by Greer’s effort to imagine a wife more substantial than the one James Joyce described as a “boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.” And the result is a satisfying and engaging novel that conjures up the life of a strong, vulnerable, lonely, and fiercely independent woman.

O’Farrell does Greer one better by depicting Agnes as what the Renaissance would have called a “wisewoman,” that is, a healer with special powers. Those powers derive for the most part from a deep understanding of the medicinal properties of plants, but there is something uncanny about what she can do. The first time Agnes and Shakespeare meet—at the country farm where the teenage Shakespeare is tutoring her stepbrothers in Latin—Agnes takes his hand and, gripping the flesh between his thumb and forefinger, mysteriously divines his inner nature. She discovers

something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town…. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents…. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.

It is easy to forgive O’Farrell the shopworn phrase “bigger than both of them” since it gestures toward what must have seemed, to anyone capable of perceiving it, indescribably strange about Shakespeare’s inner landscape.

The magnitude of that landscape, in O’Farrell’s account, is what drew Shakespeare to Agnes but what also drove him to leave her and their three children and the rest of his family, including his parents, and head off on his own to London. As the novel depicts them, Shakespeare’s mother was narrowly conventional and his father, a glover, was a drunken, irascible brute. To escape from them was a necessity. But the budding playwright wanted his beloved Agnes to join him. It was she, in O’Farrell’s reckoning, who always found a reason to delay: “Until spring comes. Until the heat of summer is over. When the winds of autumn are past. When the snow has melted.” Her motive was to preserve the lives of their precious children, to guard them from the hazards of the disease-ridden city. To this end she was willing to subordinate her deep love for her husband. And it is here, in her predominating maternal solicitude, that the novel finds its real life.

For disease and death haunted not only the crowded cities of Tudor England but also its country towns and leafy rural settlements. Given the general state of Renaissance medical knowledge, a sick person stood a better chance with the plant-based cures of a wisewoman such as O’Farrell’s Agnes than with the hideous cuppings and purges of the best Padua-trained physician. Little Hamnet, frightened by the sudden illness of his twin sister, is right to be desperately seeking his mother. But she is out in the fields, more than a mile away, collecting herbs for her healing practice. By the time she returns home, the symptoms on the little girl’s body of bubonic plague are unmistakable, and with every passing moment they are getting worse.

Narrating severe illness is for O’Farrell a personal specialty. In her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death , she describes a childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year and from which she was not expected to recover, and, still more harrowing, she depicts in excruciating, searing detail her infant daughter’s immune-system disorder:

Her skin is bubbling and blistering, each breath a struggling symphony of whistles and wheezes. Her face, under the scarlet hives, under the grotesque swelling, is ghastly white.
I think: she cannot die, not now, not here. I think: how could I have let this happen?

O’Farrell brings this direct personal experience to bear as she imagines all of Agnes’s frantic efforts to save her daughter and her irrational but unbearable feelings of responsibility. Ultimately, as we know, it was not Judith who died but her twin brother. (Judith in historical fact lived to the age of seventy-seven, dying in 1662.) Here the novel has recourse to the occult forces that had earlier accounted for Agnes’s prescient reading of her young suitor’s hand. Hamnet silently and mysteriously wills himself to take his sister’s place in the clutches of death, leaving Judith to recover as if her mother’s herbal remedies had saved her.

The recovery only intensifies Agnes’s tormenting guilt, for she feels that she somehow failed to focus her attention adequately upon the boy, and she plunges into a grief that is not unmixed with anger at her husband for not being there when she most needed him. Her anger intensifies when, having laid his son in the ground, Shakespeare announces his intention to return to London. But even in the midst of her anger, Agnes, as O’Farrell suggests, must have understood what was impelling him to leave. “You are caught by that place, like a hooked fish,” she tells him:

“What place? You mean London?”
“No, the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child.”

After her husband leaves, Agnes succumbs to what we would now call clinical depression. And lest we think that such depression is a novelist’s historical anachronism—that parents in the early modern period must have been hardened to the death of children, since it was so terribly common—we might consider the diary of Richard Napier, a seventeenth-century Buckinghamshire astrological physician. The historian Michael MacDonald, who deciphered Napier’s voluminous notes and analyzed them in a remarkable 1981 book called Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England , found that the physician treated numerous parents, and especially mothers, who were “ever leaden with grief” after a child’s death. As William Paulet, the Marquis of Winchester, had written in 1586, “The love of the mother is so strong, though the child be dead and laid in the grave, yet always she hath him quick in her heart.”

Such is the burden, brilliantly depicted, of O’Farrell’s Agnes. Her depression lasts for years, and, though it feels as if it could never get worse, it is intensified when she learns, to her horror, that her husband has written a play that bears her son’s name. (The names Hamnet and Hamlet in this period were interchangeable.) How, she asks herself, could he have been so callous as to exploit for mass entertainment his family’s intimate tragedy?

In the novel’s climactic scene, Agnes travels to London to confront her husband. There, in the midst of the general urban filth and confusion, she has two revelations. Her first comes when she rushes to his rooms. She does not find him there, but, crucially, she finds no sign that anyone besides the playwright has been there. This is the room of a solitary writer—no trace of a lover, male or female. On his desk there is a letter to her that he has begun but left unfinished. The second and still greater revelation comes when she pays her penny, thrusts herself amid the heaving crowd, and enters the wooden O of the Globe. There on the raised stage she sees her husband, his face made up in ghastly white, playing the part of a ghost, the ghost, as the characters around him say and the crowd repeats, of Hamlet:

To hear that name, out of the mouths of people she has never known and will never know, and used for an old dead king: Agnes cannot understand this. Why would her husband have done it?

Thoroughly disgusted, she is readying herself to leave when she is transfixed by the appearance on stage of another character, a boy, or rather a young man, with the precise mannerisms of the dead Hamnet—“walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice”—and at just the age he would have been, had he lived. For a moment she is utterly baffled, and then the meaning of it all comes over her: “Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can.”

To perform this extraordinary feat, she suddenly understands, her husband, in taking on the role of the ghost, has taken his child’s death and made it his own: “He has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.” The reader of the novel also knows, as Agnes cannot, that in offering himself in place of the other, Shakespeare has in effect done for his son what his son did for his gravely ill sister. What Agnes can and does know is that through the power of art her husband has redeemed himself and saved whatever he could of his lost son.

Did it actually happen this way? Almost certainly not. Was the moribund marriage saved? I doubt it. But I too am convinced that Shakespeare drew upon his grief and mourning to write the astonishing, transformative play that bears his son’s name. With her touching fiction O’Farrell has not only painted a vivid portrait of the shadowy Agnes Hathaway Shakespeare but also found a way to suggest that Hamnet was William Shakespeare’s best piece of poetry.

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Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2020

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by Maggie O'Farrell ‧ RELEASE DATE: July 21, 2020

A gripping drama of the conflict between love and destiny.

Imagining the life of the family Shakespeare left behind in Stratford makes an intriguing change of pace for a veteran storyteller.

While O’Farrell eschews the sort of buried-secrets plots that drive the propulsive narratives of such previous novels as Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), her gifts for full-bodied characterization and sensitive rendering of intricate family bonds are on full display. She opens with 11-year-old Hamnet anxiously hovering over his twin sister, Judith, who has a mysterious fever and ominous swellings. When Hamnet asks his grandfather where his mother is, the old man strikes him, and as the novel moves through the characters’ memories, we see the role John Shakespeare’s brutality played in son Will’s departure for London. The central figure in this drama is Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, better known to history as Anne, recipient of the infamous second-best-bed bequest in his will. O’Farrell chooses an alternate name—spelling was not uniform in Elizabethan times—and depicts Agnes as a woman whose profound engagement with the natural world drew young Will to her from their first meeting. The daughter of a reputed sorceress, Agnes has a mysterious gift: She can read people’s natures and foresee their futures with a single touch. She sees the abilities within Will that are being smothered as a reluctant Latin tutor and inept participant in his father’s glove trade, and it is Agnes who deftly maneuvers John into sending him away. She believes she will join Will soon, but Judith’s frailty forestalls this. O’Farrell draws us into Agnes’ mixed emotions as the years go by and she sees Will on his increasingly infrequent visits “inhabiting it—that life he was meant to live, that work he was intended to do.” Hamnet’s death—bitterly ironic, as he was always the stronger twin—drives the couple farther apart, and news of a new play called Hamlet sends Agnes to London in a rage. O’Farrell’s complex, moving finale shows her watching the performance and honoring her husband’s ability to turn their grief into art.

Pub Date: July 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-65760-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

LITERARY FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION | FAMILY LIFE & FRIENDSHIP

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Who Will Make This Year’s Booker Prize Longlist?

by Kristin Hannah ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 6, 2024

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

FAMILY LIFE & FRIENDSHIP | GENERAL FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

by Barbara Kingsolver ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Inspired by David Copperfield , Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

LITERARY FICTION | GENERAL FICTION

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Review: Shakespeare’s son died of plague, inspiring “Hamlet” — and a new novel about grief

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Maggie O’Farrell ’s eighth novel, “ Hamnet ,” is nominally a work of historical fiction. But its core subject is the kind of unchecked, ravaging despair that follows the death of a child. The author, whose memoir “ I Am, I Am, I Am ” covered the near-death experiences of herself and her ailing daughter, understands the parental terror of a child’s suffering.

After Hamnet dies, his twin sister Judith asks, “Will he never come back?” It is then that her mother, Agnes, first sobs, finding “she can bear anything except her child’s pain. She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusions but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin. Her child, sobbing for her lost brother. Her child, racked with grief.” There’s the rub, as William Shakespeare wrote in “ Hamlet .” A parent who is not alone in grief must also bear the grief of her family.

About that family, whose surname we never learn: a brief introductory explanation reminds us that Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, lost a son named Hamnet to the bubonic plague. Elizabethan naming conventions were loose: Anne/Agnes/Annis could all be names for the same person, as could Hamnet/Hamlet. Not long after losing his son, William wrote “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” a play about the depths of grief and the impossible quest for justice.

Rather than tracking the Bard, O’Farrell has focused on Shakespeare’s wife and three children (Susannah, the eldest, and Hamnet and Judith, 11). The story begins with Hamnet discovering his twin sick and feverish; when he finds the house empty and seeks help, his grandfather John deals him a nasty blow, just as he had beaten the young Will. Of course we don’t know that. So little is known about the real-life Shakespeare and his family that O’Farrell’s creative license is near-infinite.

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As Hamnet races to find an adult, we meet the petulant Susannah, his work-worn grandmother Mary, his stolid uncle Bartholomew and many other Stratford characters. His mother, Agnes, is drawn most finely, out in the meadows checking her bee skeps, woven of hemp. Although later we’ll have more scenes of Agnes and various herbs and potions, it’s here that we “see” her for the first time — and we will never forget how she guides her tiny buzzing workers “gently, ever so gently.”

Her own mother long dead, Agnes defied her sour stepmother, Joan, by falling in love with the young man (tiny hoop dangling from his ear, as in famous etchings) who had been hired to tutor her younger brothers in order to work off his family’s debt to the Hathaways. Never has there been a more passionate scene of youthful sex in an apple storage room.

O’Farrell’s novel isn’t only about grief — or not any more than “Hamlet” is. The novelist calls our attention to the world around her characters, the sensual, sensory world available to us all (not just Elizabethans) but so often glossed over as we go about mundane tasks. There are lovely metaphors and similes — tears “like heavy pearls,” death as a snow-filled landscape — but also passages rich in detail: “Apples ... He brings one up to his face and inhales the scent, sharp, specific, acidic. It brings a slew of distant images to mind: fallen leaves, sodden grass, woodsmoke, his mother’s kitchen.”

Untethered by dates or events, the story loses historicity and gains immediacy, so that even as we know Hamnet will die, we suffer his passing as a shock: “Her son’s body is in a place of torture, of hell. It writhes, it twists, it buckles and strains.” He dies fast and in agony while his twin heals, catching Agnes emotionally unaware. Although she delays the preparation of her son’s small form for as long as possible, in defiance of authorities, her husband does not return from London until Hamnet is shrouded.

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Naturally — as naturally as the bees leave the skep when smoked out — death threatens to break the bond between father and mother, husband and wife. Agnes looks at her husband as they leave the graveyard, “and it is as if she has never seen him before, so odd and distorted and old do his features seem.” He cannot cry, instead pacing their second floor “like someone trying to find their way back to a place for which they have lost the map.”

O’Farrell moves through the family’s pain like a master of signs and signals. Agnes and her daughter Judith make candles, discussing the word “for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin,” and “Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below. ‘Maybe there isn’t one,’ she suggests. ‘Maybe not,’ says her mother.” The melting, shape-shifting tallow echoes the family’s slow move from a season of grief into a season of change.

But change does not always mean healing. In London, the father busies himself with his writing and company of actors, for “the magnitude, the depth of his wife’s grief for their son exerts a fatal pull. . . . he must hold himself separate in order to survive.” So much comes between them, and perhaps it is no spoiler to say that they are brought back together — for a moment? For years? — by a performance of “Hamlet” that Agnes witnesses, by an actor directed by her husband to behave just as her Hamnet did. “It is too much: she isn’t sure how to bear it, how to explain this to herself.” As she watches, Agnes realizes that her husband “has taken his son’s death and made it his own.”

In “Hamnet,” art imitates life not to co-opt reality, but to help us bear it.

Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell Knopf: 320 pages, $27

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Reading Ladies

Hamnet [book review] #literaryfiction.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is poignant Literary Fiction, the story of a mother’s grief, and the winner of the Women’s Fiction Prize for 2020.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (cover) Image: portrait of a young boy in a felt hat....a quill lies horizontally over his eyes

Genre/Categories/Setting: Historical Literary Fiction, Family Life, Mothers and Children, Grief, Magical Realism, 1500s England

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

TW: Review mentions the death of a child.

My Summary of Hamnet:

Hamnet is set in 1580s Warwickshire, England and is the highly imagined story of William Shakespeare’s family and his wife, Agnes (Anne). This is a poignant and emotional story focused on marriage and family. Shakespeare and Agnes have three children, and we know from history that Hamnet dies. In this story of a mother’s grief, O’Farrell imagines that the 1550s plague is the cause of his death. You might be surprised that William Shakespeare is “off-stage” for the majority of the story and is never mentioned by name (referred to as husband, father, etc.). As a result, Agnes is centered as the main character of the story, and a mother’s grief is the main theme. A beautiful woman, Agnes exhibits some supernatural gifts of healing with herbs, is entirely devoted to family, and frequently experiences glimpses into the future.

My Thoughts About Hamnet:

Writing and Structure: The first thing that will strike you about Hamnet is the exquisite writing. I was convinced within a few chapters that Hamnet is truly Literary Fiction . (the focus of literary fiction is on the craft of writing, social observations, the meaning of life, and heavily character-driven with the action being internal). This passage is from the opening pages and sets the stage for the story and foreshadows the tension, grief, and regret to come:

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water. It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.”

This passage is especially compelling as I felt the desperation of this boy as he calls for help for his sister who has fallen ill. At the same time, I can strongly image his mother’s regret at not being there.

O’Farrell uses the entire book to detail a brief number of days in which the plague descends on Shakespeare’s home with devastating results.  The filler is flashbacks of Agnes and William’s love story, early marriage, and family life. These flashbacks jump in a steam of consciousness way and readers can quickly lose their bearings if not focused. The flashbacks can take the reader to any time and place. It’s a challenging read in the sense of structure .

Character-Driven: Even though the story is heavily character-driven, it contains enough plot to move the story forward. I liked that William was kept in the background (mostly offstage) to better focus on the imagined story of Agnes and their family. O’Farrell draws a beautiful and fascinating portrait of an intriguing and mysterious Agnes from her early romance with William to the realities of being a wife and mother in the 1580s to her profound grief to her rebuilding. Agnes is a strong, likable, and inspiring character.

Setting: O’Farrell’s depiction of life in the 1580s to the 1590s is detailed and atmospheric and I was transported there! It’s not often that we’re taken that far back in historical fiction!

Themes: As mentioned above, grief is the driving theme and its description is breathtaking and heart wrenching. Other themes include brother/sister relationships, mother/daughter connection, a woman’s life in the 1500s, and forgiveness. The story includes magical realism, connecting with the dead, foreseeing the future, and striking a bargain in the dying process. This was not my favorite part (affected my rating) and I would have been happy with less of the paranormal, but this is personal taste. Readers who love the paranormal aspect will find it well done.

Strong Trigger Warnings/Content Consideration: Most of this heartfelt story is focused around the death of a child and resulting grief. Because of this I feel like it’s an emotionally heavy read for anyone .

Recommended!

Recommended: This mother’s story is definitely recommended for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, for readers of engaging historical fiction, for those who appreciate Literary Biographical Fiction and want to read the 2020 Women’s Fiction Prize winner, for readers who desire to know more about the woman behind a famous man, and for book clubs (with TWs). Because this is Agnes’s story, I feel like this could have been called Agnes , but the title probably wouldn’t have been as eye catching as Hamnet .

Hamnet has won the Women’s Fiction Prize for 2020.

Thanks Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Blog for bringing the book to my attention. You will enjoy her thoughtful review!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars (rounded up to 5)

twinkle-twinkle-little-star

More Information Here

Meet the Author of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

Author Maggie O'Farrell (image: sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of a field)

Have you read a book by Maggie O’Farrell?

Fall 2020 TBR

Summer 2020 TBR (updates)

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41 comments.

An excellent review. One of my favourite books this year. I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing.

Thanks! It was an emotional read for me!

So… have I made you an O’Farrell fan, then?

Ha! I’m always willing to give her a try! This is an amazing piece of writing and I liked it better than This Must Be the Place despite it having paranormal elements. The historical setting and the mother losing a child theme gripped me. I think it depends on how much paranormal she includes….that’s really not my jam. But maybe it’s a Scottish thing??? I do like character driven when it has strong internal conflict and Daniel (I think?) certainly had that in This Must Be the Place. In both books she certainly uses a loose structure! I had to DNF her memoir I Am I Am….it made me feel anxious. So this is a complicated answer to your question!!

Well, this didn’t really have paranormal thing as much as more folklore rituals. Her book My Lover’s Lover almost feels like there’s paranormal but you have to read it all to get it!

Loved reading all your thoughts on this one. I have a feeling it will become one of my favourite books as it has so many themes that I am drawn to.

It’s an incredible and memorable read….I hope you enjoy it!

You’ve increased my desire to read this. Also, all the talk of this book makes me want to read This Must Be the Place again.

It’s an incredible and memorable read. I had to roll my eyes through the paranormal parts though. I hope you enjoy it!

Hamnet wasn’t on my TBR list, but it is now! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Great! I hope it’s a good read for you!

[…] books were on my initial fall TBR list and then FOMO gripped me and I read them in early September! Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I highly recommend both of these 5 Star reads for your fall […]

I enjoyed this very much, too. I think I would have raved about it a little more if we weren’t living in such dark times, if it weren’t so difficult to read sad stories now.

I immediately followed it up with 2 very light reads so I could shake the heaviness!

I’ve read so much about this book, I’m waiting for Christmas time to read it! Great post! x

Thanks! It’s a memorable read! Enjoy! 🙌

The first thing I thought as I saw the title was Hamlet. I wasn’t far off, huh? 😀 Fantastic review, Carol. I love how much depth this one has and how it explores various relationships so beautifully too. It’s been a while since I picked up literary fiction, but they are often hit or miss with me. Sometimes the author really does too much, making it harder to appreciate the premise by the end. This one, however, sound brilliant! Thanks for sharing! 😀

You’re welcome! I’m hit or miss with lit fiction, too. This grabbed my heart and emotions. 😍

[…] 4.5-5 Stars. Compelling, engaging, and emotional literary fiction. My review of Hamnet here. […]

What a wonderful review of Hamnet Carol. I have the audiobook of this one on hold, but I think I will read it instead, I want to relish the language and I can’t always do that when I listen to a book. I also added this one after reading Davida’s review.

Thanks Carla! I hope you enjoy it! Hamnet is one memorable and unforgettable (albeit emotional) read.

[…] favorites list! I love Book Hangovers! Books this year that have given me a book hangover include Hamnet, The Girl With the Louding Voice, and Transcendent Kingdom. I haven’t yet finished The Choice […]

[…] month (January 2, 2021), we’ll start with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Join […]

[…] Hamnet by Maggie O-Farrel (histfic, Shakespheare). My review of Hamnet here. […]

Thank you for this detailed review. I was gobsmacked that Hamnet didn’t make it to the Booker prize.

So beautifully written! 😍

[…] Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell […]

[…] month’s prompt starts with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and I’m thrilled because it was a favorite, top read for me in […]

Reading this at the moment, WordPress highlighted your post at the end of my latest which mentioned it. A good review!

Thank you so much for visiting and commenting! I hope that Hamnet is a memorable read for you! It gave me a book hangover!

[…] I have learned through experience to approach highly buzzed and popular books with caution because high expectations have definitely affected my reading experience. Do you find this true in your reading life? Two recent books that did meet my high expectations were the audio version of Project Hail Mary (The audio was absolutely as good as I expected) and Hamnet. […]

[…] Genre: literary fiction, historical literary fiction Maggie O’Farrell is a popular writer so her new releases receive a great deal of hype. Because this is historical fiction, I hopped aboard the hype train. My review of Hamnet here. […]

[…] The time and place when Shakespeare and his family lived are vividly described in Hamnet. […]

[…] reading the emotional Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, I purposefully read a few lighthearted […]

[…] Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrellpaired withShakespeare: The Biography […]

[…] Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is my compelling and poignant literary fiction selection for #throwbackthursday. […]

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‘Hamnet’: Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy was personal | Book review

Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell's novel tells the story of the Bard's lost son with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse.

"Hamnet," by Maggie O'Farrell.

By Maggie O'Farrell

Knopf. 305 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Ron Charles

On Aug. 11, 1596, William Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, was buried. He was 11 years old.

Almost nothing more is known about the boy's brief life. Four centuries later, his death is a crater on the dark side of the moon. How it impacted his twin sister and his parents is impossible to gauge. No letters or diaries — if there were any — survive. The world's greatest poet did not immortalize his lost child in verse.

Instead, we have only a few tantalizing references in Shakespeare’s plays: the laments of grieving fathers, the recurrence of twins and, of course, a tragedy called Hamlet . But aside from the name — a variant of Hamnet — attempts to draw comparisons between that masterpiece and the author’s son are odorous. We’re stuck, as we usually are, projecting our own sympathetic sorrow on the calamities of others.

To this unfathomable well of grief now comes the brilliant Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell with a novel titled Hamnet that’s told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse.

Unintimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, O’Farrell creates Shakespeare before the radiance of veneration obscured everyone around him. In this book, William is simply a clever young man — not even the central character — and O’Farrell makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of his genius or cute allusions to his plays. Instead, through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage.

The novel opens in silence that foretells doom. "Where is everyone?" little Hamnet wonders. He wanders like a ghost through the empty house and the deserted yard, calling for his grandparents, his uncles, his aunt. "He has a tendency," O'Farrell writes, "to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him and enter another place." But he's no spectral presence yet. His twin sister, Judith, has suddenly fallen ill, and Hamnet needs to find their mother. She'll know what to do. She's an herbal healer, equally revered and feared in the village. "Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's," O'Farrell writes. "It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life."

Between the hours of this fateful day, the story jumps back years. We see William's unhappy adolescence as the son of a cruel and disreputable glover. One day, while teaching Latin to bored children in a country schoolhouse, he spots a young woman gathering plants along the edge of the woods. History knows her as Anne Hathaway, but O'Farrell uses the name her father gave her in his will: Agnes. Neighbors whisper that she's "the daughter of a dead forest witch … too wild for any man."

That's your cue, William!

Soon, he and Agnes are acting out "hot blood, hot thoughts, and hot deeds" — including the hottest sex scene ever set in an apple storeroom.

This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death. O'Farrell, always a master of timing and rhythm, uses these flashbacks of young love and early marriage to heighten the sense of dread that accumulates as Hamnet waits for his mother. None of the villagers know it yet, but bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire and is ravaging the Shakespeare twins, overwhelming their little bodies with bacteria. That lit fuse races through the novel toward a disaster that history has already recorded but O'Farrell renders unbearably suspenseful.

Dead center in the novel, the author momentarily arrests the story of the Shakespeare family and transports us to the Mediterranean Sea. Here, in a chapter just a dozen pages long, we get a gripping lesson in 16th-century epidemiology. Then as now, commerce and travel are the engines of disease. A glassmaker in Venice, a monkey in Alexandria, a cabin boy from the Isle of Man — they all play small but consequential roles in the intricate chain of transmission as infected fleas jump from body to body, sowing illness across Europe. It’s a fascinating and horrific demonstration of the same forces now driving a different pandemic more than 400 years later. We may have better medical technology, but our frantic missteps sound like echoes of the Renaissance.

But O'Farrell isn't merely delaying the inevitable tragedy at the heart of her story; she's creating the context to help us feel its full impact on Hamnet's parents. Agnes is a skillful woman married to a restless man whose talents are more imaginative than practical. Constrained by the demands of motherhood and the limited opportunities of the time, she must exercise her influence indirectly and stealthily. The moves she makes to keep her children healthy and her spouse happy represent the hidden sacrifices that countless women have made, without thanks or credit, to support their husbands' ambitions.

That delicate negotiation grows far more perilous when the couple endures the death of a child. No two spouses respond to such a loss in harmony, and O'Farrell is at her most sensitive here, detailing the unspeakable anguish that strips Agnes of her confidence and propels William into the imaginary world of his comedies and tragedies.

The dark months and years of mourning that fall over the Shakespeare family would seem a slough of despair after the frantic efforts to save Hamnet’s life, but in O’Farrell’s telling, grieving is a harrowing journey all its own. The novel’s final scene offers a miraculous transformation — no, not a Winter’s Tale resurrection — but the revelation that love can sometimes spark.

From the Washington Post.

  • By Maggie O’Farrell
  • Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
  • August 22, 2021

A masterful reimagining of the life — and death — of the Bard’s only son.

Hamnet

If Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize in fiction) were simply a captivating love story about a “falconer girl” and a “Latin tutor,” it would be compelling enough to hold a reader’s attention. However, when the tutor turns out to be William Shakespeare and the girl his wife (here known not as Anne, but Agnes), it becomes a brilliant historical novel steeped in the heady atmosphere of the 16th century.

With the little that is known about the playwright’s personal life and the even less that is known about his only son, O’Farrell has taken what she calls “idle speculation” and “scant historical facts” and transformed them into a spectacular narrative. She reconstructs the life and times of the Bard of Avon, his wife, and his children. And she makes the story her own.

Hamnet opens with a boy “coming down a flight of stairs…He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.” As he reaches the bottom, he pauses a moment, “looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs…He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.”

He is greeted by an unexpected, unusual silence. It is a profound quiet that dominates his short life and provides the emotional center to the entire exceptional novel. With a foregone sense of foreboding, it is not a spoiler to reveal that this 11-year-old boy never becomes a man.

But this is not just a book about Hamnet’s death. It is also a startling revelation about the crippling effects of grief and the arcane sources of creativity. It is about the mystery and magnificence of the family bond. Not just any family — the family Shakespeare.

In the disconcerting stillness, Hamnet is searching for someone, anyone to help him with his “unwell” twin sister, Judith. No one seems to be around. Not his grandparents next door; not his older sister, Susanna; and, most importantly, not his mother. His famous father is “miles and hours and days away, in London, where the boy has never been.” There is only the “indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty.” He is disconsolate, “utterly confounded to be so alone.” He lurches about, wondering, “where is everyone?”

Eventually, after rambling through the village, he stops at the physician’s house, where he discloses that Judith has a fever, along with “buboes [and] lumps. Under the skin. On her neck, under her arms.” He returns home, unwilling to name her illness: “He will not name it, he will not allow the word to form, even inside his head.”

It is, of course, the plague, one that has shuttered all the playhouses in London “by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public.” The great misfortune may be the family’s good fortune. It means his father may be able to return home for months.

O’Farrell gives vivid dimension to the story by flashing back to the time William and Agnes met. Eighteen-year-old Will is paying down his father’s debt to a yeoman who owns acreage in Hewlands by teaching Latin grammar to the farmer’s sons. Even there, his creative mind wanders. From a window, he watches trees:

“lined up as they are, fringing the edge of the farm, bring[ing] to his mind the backdrop of a theatre, the kind of painted trickery that is unrolled, quickly, into place to let the audience know they are now in a sylvan setting…on wooded, uncultivated, perhaps unstable ground.”

He also notices what he at first thinks is a young man “wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets…[with] some kind of bird on his outstretched fist.” He is instantly drawn to the falconer, but then discovers it is the farmer’s eldest daughter. Thinking of her, of “her braid, her hawk,” lightens his “indentured” visits. She, too, is immediately taken with him.

What he doesn’t know is that she has a reputation for being “strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad.” She is known to carry a bag of “curses and cures.” In fact, she has psychic powers, “fascinated by the hands of others.” She finds the “muscle between thumb and forefinger…irresistible.”

When she takes hold of Will’s skin, an “oddly intimate” gesture, she senses greatness. He has a future that is “far-reaching [with] layers and strata, like a landscape…too big, too complex…more than she could grasp…bigger than both of them.” He is enamored of her because he thinks she “see[s] the world as no one else does.” Her paranormal skills match his imagination.

There are several memorable set pieces in the novel. The first, in 1583, is the couple’s initial lovemaking, a breathtaking scene set in an apple-storage area of the farm. Visually and aurally stimulating, it is vigorous enough to make a “tapping, rhythmic, rocking sound,” enough to “rotate and jostle [apples] in their grooves.”

The result is their firstborn, Susanna, who arrives in a captivating labor sequence in a forest where the “branches are so dense you cannot feel the rain.” It is there Agnes foresees that Will and she will have “two children and they will live long lives.” When she later bears twins, she is unsettled by what the earlier premonition must mean.

What no one knows is that, in 1596, there is a pestilence making its way from Alexandria, Egypt, via fleas, a monkey, cats, rats, and a cabin boy to infected rags wrapped around a glass necklace from Murano, Italy. The trail of disease ends in England when young Judith receives the millefiori beads. The heart-stopping description of the journey is one of O’Farrell’s most astounding narrative sequences.

Another remarkable one is the death of Hamnet at the end of the first part of the novel. Judith has been spared, but in an alarming, disconcerting way. A “great soundlessness” descends into the room where Hamnet lies. The hush that opened the book returns. There is only “silence, stillness. Nothing more.”

But O’Farrell is not quite finished with the boy, his mother, his father, or history (living and literary). The boy may be gone, but he is not forgotten. His memory lives on in the play that becomes Hamlet .

As the epigraph to the second part of the novel, O’Farrell quotes the prince’s dying words to Horatio: “I am dead:/Thou livest…draw thy breath in pain,/To tell my story.” She then explores the possibility that Agnes made her way to London and saw her husband appear at the Globe as Hamlet’s father’s ghost.

This closing sequence is the ultimate, gut-wrenching scene. Agnes realizes the emotional toll their child’s death has taken on Shakespeare. It has been four years. She has “looked for [him] everywhere, ceaselessly…and here he is.”

“[Her] Hamnet is dead…yet [this Hamlet] is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.” Her husband has “pulled off a manner of alchemy.”

Ghosts of all kinds prevail. They populate the stage; they embrace everyone’s thoughts. The Hamlet on the boards is “two people…both alive and dead.” A “final silence” descends at the end of the play, after “the dead have sprung up to take their places in the line of players at the edge of the stage.”

What O’Farrell has done is incredible. She has memorialized a family. The novel is the thing in which she catches the conscience of the reader. This is the kind of dazzling novel to put in everyone’s hands, to tell everyone to read. It is a flawless achievement. Every sentence is silk; every detail vibrant; every character pulsates.

In the overwhelming, heartbreaking conclusion of Hamnet , the author collects all the silences, all the sufferings, all the ghosts into a compelling resolution to tell the Shakespearean story. She breathes life into the boy who fell down the stairs.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticisms appear in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online, including Publishers Weekly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, On the Seawall, World Literature Today, and elsewhere.

Support the Independent by purchasing this title via our affliate links: Amazon.com Powell's.com Or through Bookshop.org

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hamnet maggie ofarrell plot summary book synopsis review

By Maggie O'Farrell

Book review and synopsis for Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, a story about Shakespeare's marriage and the death of his son.

Hamnet opens with some historical notes. A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet (a name that is interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet).

As the story unfolds, the book tells a fictionalized story of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes and the death of their son Hamnet.

(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)

Detailed Plot Summary

The three-sentence summary: Hamnet is essentially a family-type drama telling the background between Will Shakespeare and his wife Agnes. It follows their relationship as they deal with their grief over the death of their son Hamnet, the implications of Will's career and Will's infidelity. In the end, Will writes the play Hamlet as a farewell to his son -- it's a play where the father dies instead of the son and the ghost's final line is "Remember me."

(The book opens with a few historical notes . A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet , interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet.)

The chapters jump back and forth between two timelines. In 1596, Hamnet is a young boy whose twin sister Judith has suddenly fallen ill. Hamnet searches for an adult, but the only person home is his drunk and abusive grandfather John Shakespeare. John is a disgraced glove maker, due to his illicit wool trading, among other things. Hamnet's father (William Shakespeare, though he is never named in the book) is in London, as usual. Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is away. He falls asleep next to Judith, crying.

In an earlier timeline, John Shakespeare owes a debt to a (deceased) sheep farmer. John and the farmer's (second) wife Joan have an arrangement for his son William to work off the debt by tutoring Joan's sons. It results in the tutor (Will Shakespeare) meeting Agnes. Agnes and her brother Bartholomew are the farmer's children with his first wife. Agnes has special abilities, where she is able to divine information about people, and she is also good with plants. Agnes and William fall in love.

In 1596, Agnes finally comes home and tries to treat Judith, confirming that she has "the pestilence" (the plague). The doctor shows up and warns them that no one is to leave the house until it has passed. When nothing works, Eliza (William's sister) writes to her brother in London to tell him to come home to say goodbye.

In an earlier timeline, Agnes becomes pregnant. John senses a business opportunity and strikes a bargain with Joan and Bartholomew regarding the debt, wool and Agnes. Soon, Agnes and the tutor are married. The baby, Susanna, is born. Agnes notices that her husband is unhappy as an errand-boy for his father. Agnes comes up with a plan to get John to send William to London. The plan works. Though Agnes is pregnant again, but William leaves for London, with plans to reunite once he is settled there.

An interlude traces the path of the disease. It involves a chance meeting of a glassmaker in Venice and a cabin boy on a ship. The cabin boy brings a disease-ridden flea onto the ship after interacting with a monkey in Alexandria. The pestilence ravages the ship. After the glassmaker loads his cargo in Venice, fleas end up in those boxes, which is unloaded in London. One box makes its way to a dressmaker. Her neighbor's daughter, Judith, is curious about it. The dressmaker lets Judith unpackage the disease-ridden box.

In 1596, Hamnet sees his dying sister and wants to trick death into taking him instead. He crawls into bed next to her. Agnes is soon surprised to discover that Judith is looking better, but Hamnet is barely breathing. She tries every remedy, but he dies.

In the earlier timeline, William sells some gloves to actors at a theater. Soon, he is acting (and later writing plays) and no longer dealing in gloves. In Stratford, Agnes is surprised to have twins, though she is worried because she has always known she would have only two children. Judith is the second one out, and she is weak and smaller than Hamnet. Agnes delays going to London until Judith is stronger, but Judith continues to be weak and sickly. The years pass, but the move to London never happens.

In 1596, William comes home to find Hamnet, not Judith, dead. Hamnet is buried. William is heartbroken. The house is full of reminders of Hamnet, and he is worried about the life he has built in London. William soon goes back to London and does not come home for a long time. Judith wonders if her resemblance to Hamnet is what keeps him away. Agnes grieves, too.

A year after Hamnet's death, William finally comes home. Agnes senses that he has been with other women. William apologizes for everything and decides to buy his family a house here in Stratford since it is clear that they will not be coming to London. He buys the largest house in the town, though he still only visits two or three times a year. As the girls grow up, Judith develops a love of plants like her mother. Susanna helps out with her father's affairs in terms of purchasing land, rental income, and other business affairs.

One day, Agnes learns that William has written a play (Hamlet) named after their son. Upset, Agnes goes (with Bartholomew) to London to find William. She finds him at the playhouse before a performance of Hamlet. As she watches the play, she realizes that her husband has written a play where the father is the one that dies instead of the child. In his play, "Hamlet"/Hamnet gets to live. The book ends with the last line that the ghost delivers, "Remember me".

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary .

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ( $2 , $3 , or $5 ) or joining the Patreon !

Book Review

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (or, Hamnet and Judith in some markets) is one of books in recent memory that I’ve been genuinely really excited to read.

After reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful (non-fiction) biography of Shakespeare , I’ve been interested in reading more historical fiction about the famous Bard, but haven’t found much to catch my eye. I tried a couple that I disliked enough that I gave on the pursuit for a while, but Hamnet has gotten great reviews and it sounded like a unique take on Shakespeare.

Hamnet is largely told with a focus on Agnes, the wife of William Shakespeare. (Anne Hathaway is the name that’s commonly used, but Agnes and Anne were commonly interchangeable at that time.) The death of Hamnet, their only male child, due to the plague features prominently in the story as well.

O’Farrell never actually refers to William Shakespeare by name, which helps to detach the story from all the mythology that comes with Shakespeare and his reputation. It also helps to reinforce that, although he is still a main character here, he’s not the main character.

O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a work of historical fiction, with a lot of emphasis on the word fiction . The reality is that what’s really known about Shakespeare is spotty at best (if you want to know more, I’ll reference Bryson’s Shakespeare biography here again), but it still makes for a delightful story to wonder about his life. (I also suspect that this story wouldn’t stand up to careful scrutiny about Shakespeare and all the details of his life, see the Historical Accuracy section below, but I’m not enough of a Shakespearean scholar to say for sure.)

Instead, facts serve as the rough contours of this book that gets filled in colorfully and vividly by this moving and beautifully written story. It’s not a complex or even terribly clever rendition of Agnes and William’s story, but O’Farrell tells it in a way that’s powerful and alive.

Quick (Minor) Criticism

The character of William Shakespeare in this book is humanized and made smaller. I understand why O’Farrell might want to do that, to avoid writing yet another tribute to the greatness of the towering figure of the William Shakespeare. However, I have to admit that this aspect of the book wasn’t entirely satisfying to me. Unlike his portrayal in the book, ultimately, he wasn’t just a guy who became financially comfortable writing plays. Instead, he wrote masterpieces and a lot of them.

Apart from a very brief section where he plays a quick word game with his sister Eliza, there’s nothing in the book indicating that this is or was a brilliant person. Instead, he’s depicted as a disappointment to his parents, an absent father, a weakling and kind of an unmotivated loser in general, all of which made it hard for me to view this as a story that was about Shakespeare at all. I understand this wasn’t intended to be an origin story about William Shakespeare, but I also can’t imagine that this useless lump of a man described here would become the mythological creature that he is.

As a final note, even with that criticism, Hamnet not even being longlisted for the Booker Prize still says a lot more about a deficiencies of the Booker Prize’s judges panel (in my opinion) than it does about Maggie O’Farrell’s newest novel, which is well worth a read.

review book hamnet

Historical Accuracy

As mentioned previously, there’s definitely a lot of fiction mixed up in here.

For example, a colorful interlude in the book involves a petrified Hamnet and a doctor wearing the distinctively creepy beaked plague mask that you’ve probably seen before. The problem is, in the book this happens in 1596, and the design is commonly attributed to Charles de Lorme , chief physician to Louis XIII, who was born in 1584. It seems unlikely he designed it when he was 12. Furthermore, historians have noted that there’s no evidence the Plague Doctor costume was ever used in London . (It was primarily used in 17th/18th century Italy and France.)

I’m not a historian — not even a history buff, really — so if I can catch this fairly obvious mistake, I’m certain there are others in here as well.

Did any of this spoil my enjoyment of the book? Not really, but again, history buffs and Shakespearean scholars may feel differently.

Read it or Skip it?

Hamnet is a moving and uncomplicated tale about a marriage, a family and the loss of a child. It focuses on the character of Agnes and offers unique rendition of Shakespeare’s life.

I enjoyed the story quite a bit, the writing is lovely, and there’s a lot to like about Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid and engaging version of Agnes and William’s story.

I found the portrayal of William Shakespeare here a bit unconvincing and I think there are likely some historical inaccuracies here, but it still works splendidly as a work of historical fiction due to O’Farrell’s storytelling abilities. It’s an intimate and emotional book that I think historical fiction lovers can appreciate.

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Thanks for your thoughts. I will put this one on my TBR list.

Hi rosi! And thanks for reading, hope all is well with you!

Very emotional moments in the book. The love of a brother for his twin sister is amazing. The only other such example I know is when the firs Meghal emperor Babur was sitting near his son Hamayun’s death bed.He prayed to God to take his life and save his son and that did happen.

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BookBrowse Reviews Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

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by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

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  • Historical Fiction
  • UK (Britain) & Ireland
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  • Dealing with Loss
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review book hamnet

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Set in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1590s, Hamnet imagines the impact of the death of their child on William and Agnes Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare's name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O'Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare's family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel's climax is formed, as O'Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet's death in 1596 on Hamlet , written between 1599 and 1601. Despite the novel's title, Agnes is its protagonist. O'Farrell draws on the limited historical detail that we have about the real Agnes as her backdrop, and then fleshes her out into a compelling character. Portrayed as a village outcast, there are whispers and rumors throughout the book that she's a witch; this is heightened by a hint of magical realism in which Agnes is able to divine certain details about the future. She knows, for example, that she will have two children standing at her bedside when she dies; she is shocked then when she gives birth to twins, already having one older child (the reader, of course, understands that her vision is accurate, knowing that Hamnet will die young). The first two-thirds of the novel are split into a dual timeline, bouncing back and forth between the week of Hamnet's death (the present), and the blossoming romance between William and Agnes (the past). It's a tender yet fraught courtship, and the pacing here is slow and deliberate. The final third speeds up and takes place after the death of their son. Both parts are equally as successful — the languid pace is sustained by O'Farrell's lyrical prose, and the more frantic pace is made tense and urgent by it.

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water. It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.

This novel is gentle and domestic and, in many ways, speaks to grief as a commonality of the human experience. But despite O'Farrell's light touch with historical detail, it's a novel that cannot be removed from its Shakespearean context. The allusions to Shakespeare's works are more hints and whispers than overt references, but any eagle-eyed Shakespeare fan will enjoy the way O'Farrell plays with expectations, ducking around moments that could be turned into fan service by an author with a heavier hand. And what if I fail? Shakespeare asks Agnes at one point, echoing Macbeth's line If we should fail? Agnes's response is not, however, Lady Macbeth's famous retort ( We fail! ) — instead she says You won't fail. I know it . The point is clear — Shakespeare's plays were all works of fiction; Agnes likely never said the words We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we'll not fail to her husband, thus inspiring Lady Macbeth's famous line. But as reality and fiction often exist in a symbiotic relationship, O'Farrell imagines the subtler influences of Agnes and Hamnet on Shakespeare in a novel that's as intimate and human as it is grandiose.

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review book hamnet

Hamnet Book Review

Book review by Dinh.

4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Read synopsis.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell got our attention because its title name is interchangeable with Hamlet, which is a play written by William Shakespeare. I’m not a big Shakespeare fan but I’m familiar with the play Hamlet.

We chose to read Hamnet partly because Maggie O’Farrell is a new author to us and also because it’s an historical fiction about Shakespeare’s family.

Going in, I was worried that my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare would hinder my reading experience but it didn’t matter in the end. Having general knowledge about the famous playwright is all you need. Moreover, it’s a work of fiction so facts or truths can be liberally stretched.

I immensely enjoyed reading Hamnet . This is definitely a book you should check out!

Here’s why:

Firstly, be aware that this book is not a plot driven book. It’s a character driven book so the book will focus on the characters and how they react to events that happen in the book.

Secondly, don’t expect it to be about William Shakespeare ! His name is not mentioned at all in the book.

Instead, the story’s epicenter is Agnes. Set in 16th century England, during the times of the bubonic plague or Black Death, Agnes meets her future husband, who is referred in the book as the Latin tutor when she meets him.

The couple marry and have three children and live in Henley Street until the plague come knocking at their door…

Author’s Style

Hamnet won me over with its beautiful writing. The wonderful writing propels the reader and I found myself absorbed from the first page to the end.

I take my hat off to O’Farrell who has crafted a beautiful story with the barest of facts thrown in and made it into a plausible story that had my senses go into overdrive. I loved use of the details and descriptions of the day to day life in 16th century England which brought the book alive.

My favorite part of the book was how the pestilence traveled from Alexandria and reached Warwickshire, England. It was only a small part of the book but it made a huge difference in the overview. It tied the story together.

Another thing that O’Farrell mastered was her handling of grief. The loss of a child and how it affects Agnes and her marriage was spot-on. The depth of emotion in the book was incredible- from Judith being ill to Agnes trying to save her son.

review book hamnet

Find Maggie O’Farrell: Website | Facebook |

O’Farrell does a fantastic job in creating and developing a cast of rich and complex characters.

Agnes was my favorite character. I loved that she was different and unique. She had a kestrel, could tame animals and knew about herbal medicine. She had an uncanny way of reading a person’s character and their future by pinching the flesh between the thumb and forefinger.

Agnes is portrayed as an oddity within community but is put up with because of her skills as a healer. She uses herbs and plants to help those that seek her medicinal skills.

Although Agnes was seen peculiar person, she knew what she wanted and had plans to get what she wanted. For example, when Agnes met the Latin tutor (Shakespeare) she falls for him and wants to marry him but her step mother Joan said no. To solve this problem, Agnes gets pregnant with the Latin tutor.

In addition, I loved the twins Hamnet and Judith characters. Their connection was special and they loved each other so much that Hamnet would give his life for Judith.

The ending was perfect. I was completely satisfied with it. It was a tear-jerker at the end but that’s what a good book is suppose to do!

My Final Thoughts

I loved reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell!

It was moving, vivid and beautifully written. O’Farrell brings to life a story of a mother who loses a child who is all but forgotten except his name on one of the most famous plays.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy historical fiction.

Get your copy here . Or, listen to the audio book for free with an Audible trial.

Belong to a book club? Check out Hamnet book club discussion questions.

6 thoughts on “ Hamnet Book Review ”

I had a hard time and almost gave up on it for the first 100 pages. After that, I fell in love with the book. I lost my only daughter many years ago and can relate very well with Agnes’ grief. I felt like our family had been amputated. Her reluctance to bury her son was very touching.

Hi Jean, I am sorry for your loss- I can’t imagine losing a child and the grief you faced.

I am glad you stuck with it and ended up loving Hamnet. It was a very emotional book and beautifully written.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

I thoroughly agree with the review. The writing was beautiful; one can picture life as it was. I am familiar with Shakespeare and the play Hamlet. I’ve seen it several times including a modern dress version. Always the focus was on Hamlet’s indecision (To Be Or Not To Be). But this was a whole new perspective — a father expressing his grief over the loss of his son. It is going to make for quite a discussion at our book club in January.

Hi Ellen! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Hamnet. I happy to hear that you agree with my review- O’Farrell is a wonderful writer! I am so impressed with her writing that I have another of her books added to my To Be Read list. Have fun in your book club discussing this book!

Hi Dinh, I have never really read a book dealing in historical fiction, but you have my attention with Hamnet! And it’s always fun to delve into the mind of a new author 🙂 Hope you are well, ~Jeremy

Hi Jeremy! I really enjoyed the way O’Farrell wrote! She made historical fiction really interesting!

Thanks for stopping by at Arlene’s Book Club!

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Unions are hugely popular. Why aren’t they more powerful?

In ‘the hammer,’ journalist hamilton nolan examines the modern labor movement and argues that many of its leaders have been making the wrong moves.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans approve of unions, according to Gallup . But just 10 percent of U.S. workers belong to one. Why the disconnect?

In his new book, “ The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor , ” journalist Hamilton Nolan seeks to explain what he calls “the dizzying potential of organized labor, as well as the heartbreaking flaws that hold it back.”

Nolan is up front about his sympathies. He became a journalist, he writes, “to yell about who society’s villains are.” After joining the online outlet Gawker — “anarchist journalism at its finest,” in his phrase — he covered labor “to promote the concept of eating the rich” and helped unionize his fellow scribes before Gawker went bankrupt.

No doubt Nolan’s advocacy opened doors. He doesn’t interview union opponents, but his portrayals of a handful of successful and failed labor campaigns across the country are nonetheless richly reported, offering alternately inspiring and discouraging lessons for would-be organizers.

Unions do not spend enough money and effort recruiting new members and instead focus on “tending to the small and shrinking walled gardens of their existing membership,” Nolan asserts. He argues that leaders’ disproportionate focus on electoral politics and lobbying Congress for workplace protections, as in the stalled Democratic-sponsored Protecting the Right to Organize Act, is a weak strategy.

Unless worker power is marshaled to counter the nation’s skyrocketing inequality, including through successful strikes, the labor movement’s “broad defeat is only a matter of time,” Nolan writes. “The frogs in the pot may pretend the water isn’t boiling, but it will get them eventually, sure as hell.”

It is a familiar critique. In 1995, John Sweeney , then president of the AFL-CIO, the giant labor federation, called on its affiliates to devote as much as 30 percent of their budgets to organizing new workers, but few did. In the meantime, union density has plummeted by a third.

Other recent books, notably by veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse and by longtime organizer Jane McAlevey , have also explored the history and current predicament of the union movement. But “The Hammer” brings us up to date with ground-level reporting on some of the latest battles, the challenges of covid-era organizing and right-to-work resistance in the South.

In California, for example, some 40,000 workers, mostly women of color, run small day-care centers in their homes, caring for children of low-wage families. By setting reimbursement rates, the state is their effective employer, but the subsidies had been paltry and benefits nonexistent. Nolan explains how, in 2003, the Service Employees International Union and the United Domestic Workers joined groups of the child-care workers seeking to overturn a state law that barred them from collective bargaining. After four vetoes by successive governors, the law was finally changed in 2019, leading to one of the largest union elections of the 21st century.

The long campaign got little national attention. But despite a raging pandemic, contracts followed , granting hefty pay raises and, for an essential workforce hit hard by covid-19, a retirement fund and health-care trust. It was, Nolan writes in profiling some of the women, a model of “grassroots labor organizing by marginalized and ignored working people, at a staggering scale.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Nolan offers a stark reminder of organizers’ uphill challenge when he describes how South Carolina has throttled labor activism. Just 1.7 percent of the state’s workers belonged to unions in 2022, the lowest density in the United States.

In the 19th century, Charleston was the biggest slave port of the Confederacy, and Nolan ties South Carolina’s present stance to its history. In 1969, civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King, traveled to Charleston to support a walkout of Black hospital workers seeking to unionize. South Carolina’s governor mobilized 1,000 state troopers and imposed a citywide curfew. No union was recognized.

Even today, as one Black union official told Nolan, “they are addicted to free labor. Or cheap labor.”

Charleston’s dockworkers have a strong union, thanks to their power over a supply chain hub, but they remain an isolated case. No hotel in that tourist-rich city is unionized. And the state is a haven for companies such as Boeing , BMW, Mercedes, Michelin and Bridgestone looking to escape the collective bargaining they face elsewhere, Nolan writes.

Unions are discouraged, as then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) explained in 2014, “because we don’t want to taint the water.”

In the private sector, as in other Southern states, South Carolina’s “ right-to-work ” law allows employees to forgo paying dues in unionized companies, crippling the financial strength of unions. And while public-employee unions, including for teachers, thrive in many states, South Carolina law outright bans public-sector collective bargaining.

“The South is an existential problem for organized labor,” Nolan laments, predicting that industries will continue to migrate and their unions wither. Even labor “successes” he cites across the country come with an asterisk: Unite Here’s culinary workers have sewn up the Las Vegas Strip, but nearby hotels have yet to benefit. The Amazon Labor Union ’s victory at a Staten Island warehouse might be “thrilling,” but the upstart has since faltered. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

‘Making It in America’ calls for a manufacturing revival

If much labor news is grim, Nolan can be forgiven for seeking a savior. But in a puzzling choice, he devotes large chunks of the book to a figure whose time in the national spotlight has already passed. Sara Nelson , the glamorous, militant and telegenic president of the Association of Flight Attendants, became something of a movement celebrity in 2019 when she called for a general strike during a government shutdown. In 2020, as the pandemic exploded, she played a key role in crafting a $50 billion airline bailout that reserved half the money for workers.

At the time, Nelson was mulling a run for president of the AFL-CIO, the giant federation of 60 unions. “That project was, in essence, to become the leader of the labor movement and save America,” Nolan writes. But in the end, Nelson didn’t run for the job. She was sidelined by two hip operations, further hampered by the pandemic and all but shut out by 2021 when the insider candidate, Liz Shuler, ascended to the interim position after President Richard Trumka’s death. Shuler would win the presidency in June 2022.

Moreover, Nelson’s biggest challenge, announced in 2019, was a new attempt to unionize 23,000 flight attendants at Delta Air Lines . That effort has yet to succeed.

Lately, other aggressive reformers have gained national prominence, including the Teamsters’ chief, Sean O’Brien, and United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain . Both rose through newly democratic elections at unions previously mired in corruption, and then won big pay raises for tens of thousands of workers using bold tactics.

As Nolan sees it, individual unions are unlikely to muster the tens of millions of American workers needed to counter the shareholder capitalism that thrives on squeezing labor costs. And only a combative, centralized, multibillion-dollar push — which the AFL-CIO has yet to mount — can compensate for laws that allow company “union-busters” to intimidate workers with few penalties.

But “there is no pro-union Delta force,” he writes. “Organized labor is everywhere being out-organized by capital.”

Margot Roosevelt is a journalist based in Los Angeles.

Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor

By Hamilton Nolan

Hachette. 260 pp. $30

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Kelly Link Returns with a Dreamlike, Profoundly Beautiful Novel

In “The Book of Love,” the Pulitzer finalist and master of short stories pushes our understanding of what a fantasy novel can be.

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An illustration of a young woman walking amid a blue haze, with two other figures in the background.

By Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar is the Book Review’s science fiction and fantasy columnist, a Hugo Award-winning writer and the co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”

THE BOOK OF LOVE , by Kelly Link

A certain weight of expectation accrues on writers of short fiction who haven’t produced a novel, as if the short story were merely the larval stage of longer work. No matter how celebrated the author and her stories, how garlanded with prizes and grants, the sense persists: She will eventually graduate from the short form to the long. After an adolescence spent munching milkweed in increments of 10,000 words or less, she will come to her senses and build the chrysalis required for a novel to emerge, winged and tender, from within.

Now Kelly Link — an editor and publisher, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and the author of five story collections, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist — has produced a novel. Seven years in the making, “The Book of Love” — long, but never boring — enacts a transformation of a different kind: It is our world that must expand to accommodate it, we who must evolve our understanding of what a fantasy novel can be.

Reviewing “The Book of Love” feels like trying to describe a dream. It’s profoundly beautiful, provokes intense emotion, offers up what feel like rooted, incontrovertible truths — but as soon as one tries to repeat them, all that’s left are shapes and textures, the faint outlines of shifting terrain.

Still, here goes: Set in 2014, in a small Massachusetts town called Lovesend, “The Book of Love” is the story of three local teenagers (and one stowaway) who return from the dead and must compete for the prize of remaining alive by completing a series of magical tasks.

It’s the story of the parents, siblings and lovers of those teenagers, the people who mourned them for the year they were gone and now, magically, have had those memories of grief replaced: The teens were never dead, they were only studying abroad.

It’s the story of the wizard-priests who guard either side of the door to the world of the dead; one of them is the teens’ high school music teacher, who must now instruct them in magic if they’re to survive.

It’s the story of a fey, cruel moon goddess who’s lost the key to her larder of souls, and the young man, now hundreds of years old, who bound himself to her service in exchange for a promise of revenge.

It’s the story of two sisters, one of whom is part of the undead trio, who can’t speak without hurting or irritating each other, but who also need each other, are lost without each other.

“The Book of Love” is made up of smaller books: Each character perspective is presented as “The Book of [character name],” with surprising detours into the interiority of objects or concepts. This might suggest discrete accounts with clear divisions between them, but the reality is more complex: These books are in conversation with one another, their lives interleaved.

Susanna and Laura Hand, the sisters, are in a band with Daniel Knowe, who’s been secretly dating Susanna but is opaquely detested by Mo Gorch, who is close friends with the girl Laura has a deep crush on — the girl Susanna kissed out of spite. They’ve all known one another since childhood, and they’re all on the cusp of adulthood. Tugging the story forward through these relationships are the questions of how Laura, Daniel and Mo died, why they came back, who or what slipped out of death alongside them, and what they all have to do to stay on this side of the grave.

It’s common to read a book with a strong sense of place and say that the setting is a character in the story. But in “The Book of Love,” it’s more correct to say that characters provide the story’s setting: Each “Book” is a dwelling place to experience a life, and taken together, the result is immense. As C.S. Lewis wrote of heaven and John Crowley wrote of fairyland, the further in you go, the bigger it gets — an experience that recalls the process of getting to know a person.

So much of Link’s work steps lightly, a tempering of the commonplace with vivid, delicate surprise. In a 2023 profile for Vulture , Link observed: “The novel hardens as you go on. … At a certain point the ambitions, even the shape, begin to feel inevitable. The short story stays fluid.” I kept waiting for the novel to harden as it went on, but it never did; every sentence remained a springboard for new sound, piano keys rising and falling in new variations. In one chapter, a man summons his lover by playing wrong notes in an old song; Link’s project here sometimes feels like that, resisting an expected shape by leaning out of resolving cadences and into bumps, splinters, question marks.

“Don’t be ashamed of the things that you unabashedly love in narrative,” Link said in a 2019 speech. “Investigate them with a loving heart.” Investigating romance novels, small towns, families, the friends and music you make in high school, fairy villains and fairy lovers, with fascinated tenderness and deep familiarity, “The Book of Love” does justice to its name. Its composition, its copiousness, suggests that love, in the end, contains all — that frustration, rage, vulnerability, loss and grief are love’s constituent parts, bound by and into it.

THE BOOK OF LOVE | By Kelly Link | Random House | 628 pp. | $31

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Book Reviews

Kelly link's debut novel 'the book of love' is magical, confusing, heartfelt, strange.

Gabino Iglesias

Cover of The Book of Love

For years, fans of Kelly Link, one of the finest purveyors of contemporary short fiction, have wondered what the author would be able to do with a full novel — and have eagerly waited for her to deliver one.

That wait ends now with the release of The Book of Love , Link's debut novel. And the author has embraced the freedom granted by a longer format, delivering a 600-page behemoth of a novel that shatters reality while pulling readers into the lives of several characters and obliterating any perceived dividing line between speculative fiction and literary fiction.

As an avid reader and book reviewer, I'm looking forward to seeing how other reviewers tackle a synopsis of this novel. The narrative starts late one night when Laura, Daniel, and Mo find themselves in a classroom with their music teacher and a strange entity. The youngsters are dead, but they're not. They disappeared a year ago from their hometown of Lovesend, Massachusetts. They were presumed dead, and they are, but now that they're back, their teacher, who possesses magical powers, alters reality. Instead of dead, they're all coming back from a long trip to study in Ireland. Their teacher knows what happened...maybe.

With their story in their heads and their new reality in place. the teenagers are sent back to their previous lives, where they must cope with everything that happened during their absence while simultaneously trying to figure out what will happen next. Also, there was a cryptic message for them on the blackboard of the room where they appeared: "2 RETURN/2 REMAIN." What does it mean? How does that math affect the outcome of their return? Their life as the undead is already complicated enough, but their bizarre revivification has brought something other than the teenagers from the other side; supernatural entities that have their own agendas. As Laura, Daniel, and Mo navigate their new situation and adapt to their new realities, they must also crack the mystery of their return, and more than their own resurrection hangs in the balance.

That's a lengthy synopsis, but it barely scratches the surface of The Book of Love , which also delves into the complications of love and friendship, family drama, grief, resilience, and the unlimited power of adaptability while delivering a tale of supernatural menace that also explores what it truly means to be alive. After years of award-winning short stories in some great venues and a few outstanding short story collections like Get in Trouble , which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and White Cat, Black Dog , this novel is proof that Link can be as strange, entertaining, and witty in novel form as she is when writing short stories.

The Book of Love is a narrative about love — and death and resurrection and kissing people and growing up and sibling rivalry and horror. This is a story about stories that even touches on writing. Mo's grandmother, Maryanne, who passed away while Mo was away, was a prolific writer who wrote 73 books in 42 years. Writing allowed her to build a good life and to take care of Mo after his mother passed away. She was also a Black woman. Little details like that open the door to new things, so while Link is telling us about Mo, she also gives us Maryanne's biography while also discussing publishing and the intricacies of a Black woman writing a very popular series about a white woman. Stories within stories, narratives that delve into memories, and expansive passages what go deep into the psychological and emotional inner worlds of the characters are common. In fact, this book will be too much for some readers. This is an entertaining novel, but it's also a barrage of ideas and minutiae, a veritable onslaught of language and narratives that deviate from the core of the story.

This is a long book that's simultaneously dazzling and dizzying. Some lines cut with their clarity and sincerity while some plot elements are puzzling. Link is a wizard writing spells that obey a dream logic only she fully understands. At once a book for adults that's full of elements that make it feel like a fantasy YA novel, a story about survival and danger that starts with a group of dead kids and only gets weirder from there, and a narrative that shows a mighty writer with a unique voice at the height of her powers, The Book of Love is, simply put, a magical, confusing, heartfelt, strange, wonderfully written novel that delivers everything fans of Link's short fiction expected while also packing a few surprises.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias .

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Fulton county district attorney Fani Willis takes the stand in Atlanta and Donald Trump appears in court in New York – both on Thursday this week.

Find Me the Votes review: Fani Willis of Georgia, the woman who could still take down Trump

Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman’s book came out before the DA’s troubles began. It makes a persuasive case for her work

I f this week’s hearing about Fani Willis’s affair with her assistant Nathan Wade has piqued America’s interest in the character of the Fulton county district attorney, Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman have written the perfect book for this moment.

Isikoff has been a dogged investigator for the Washington Post, NBC and Yahoo, while his longtime friend and collaborator Klaidman is a former managing editor of Newsweek now a newly minted investigative reporter for CBS. Together they have produced the most readable and authoritative account to date of all of Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

At its center is a nuanced portrait of Willis, who at least until a couple of days ago appeared to be Trump’s most effective nemesis, having indicted him, his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, as well as 16 other co-conspirators.

Whether Willis’s affair with one of her principal assistants is a valid reason to force the presiding judge to dismiss her from the case remains to be seen. But the revelation seems to have been as much of a bombshell for her biographers as it was for everyone else.

Contacted by the Guardian, both authors declined to predict the outcome of the current proceeding. But Isikoff sounded optimistic that Willis would survive this latest assault.

“How did the relationship between Willis and Wade prejudice any of the other defendants?” Isikoff asked. “There is simply no evidence that it did.”

Willis is a daughter of the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, her father, John C Floyd III, migrated from the politics of John F Kennedy and the non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr to the much tougher ideology of the Black Panther Party of Los Angeles, which he co-founded in 1967. After that he became a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer.

Isikoff and Klaidman say Floyd’s odyssey gives us “a glimpse into his daughter’s pugnacious personality and her deep-seated loathing of bullies” – both of which were on prominent display when she defended herself in the hearing room.

While it was her personal passion that brought Willis into an unwelcome spotlight, it was her own focus on allegations of sexual harassment against her previous boss and mentor that made her election as the first woman district attorney of Fulton county possible. Paul Howard became the first Black person to hold the job of Fulton county DA in 1996, and made Willis a star by giving her some of his Atlanta office’s most famous cases. She became famous as the lead prosecutor in an indictment of 35 public school officials for alleged violations of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act. The Atlanta schools superintendent, six principals, two assistant principals and 14 teachers were accused of faking students’ test scores, in response to the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

That law, championed by George W Bush, put schools at risk of losing federal aid if students didn’t meet minimum standards for success on standardized tests. All but one of the defendants was Black, which made the prosecution even more controversial. By the time Howard gave Willis the case she was chief of the office’s trial division. Isikoff and Klaidman say she proved a “hands-on micromanager” who “plunged into every detail of the case”. Its complexity turned out to be the perfect training for Willis to use the same Rico statute to go after Donald Trump and his co-conspirators.

One of this book’s most important contributions is to remind us of the breadth and viciousness of the president’s efforts to undermine democracy – and the horrendous effects they had on the lives of decent, honest election officials in every swing state Trump lost.

After multiple lawsuits alleging voter fraud were thrown out by nearly every judge who heard them, Trump famously turned his attention to the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, one of several Republicans whose resistance proved heroic. When Trump got Raffensperger and his assistants on the phone, they were shocked by how many QAnon conspiracy theories Trump seemed to have accepted as fact – just because so many of his supporters had retweeted them. A particular favorite of the president’s was the notion there had been 200,000 forged signatures on absentee ballots in Fulton county – even though the total number of absentee votes had been 148,319.

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In the same call, Trump repeated the big lie that the Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss had run between 18,000 and 56,000 bogus ballots through election scanners. Trump said Freeman was “known all over the internet”. This was the same lie promoted by Giuliani, which ultimately cost him a richly deserved verdict of $148m for libeling the two innocent women.

In one of the many telling details of Isikoff and Klaidman’s book, the authors remind us that the other hero from that phone call was the Georgia deputy secretary of state, Jordan Fuchs.

“Fuchs did what was arguably the single gutsiest and most consequential act of the entire post-election battle,” the authors believe. To protect her boss, she decided to tape the phone call – without telling Raffensperger. After the tape leaked to the Washington Post, it quickly became the single most powerful piece of evidence against the ex-president in any of the four prosecutions he is still facing.

When you see all of Trump’s alleged crimes piled together in a single narrative, it is beyond belief that he remains the favorite of a majority of Republican primary voters. But these same facts should surely be enough to guarantee his defeat if he actually gets the chance to face the larger electorate in November.

Find Me the Votes is published in the US by Twelve

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  1. Review: 'Hamnet,' By Maggie O'Farrell : NPR

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    Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak August 22, 2021 A masterful reimagining of the life — and death — of the Bard's only son. If Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize in fiction) were simply a captivating love story about a "falconer girl" and a "Latin tutor," it would be compelling enough to hold a reader's attention.

  17. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, Review and Summary

    Synopsis. Hamnet opens with some historical notes. A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet (a name that is interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet).. As the story unfolds, the book tells a fictionalized story of William Shakespeare and his wife ...

  18. Review of Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

    Published 2023. About this book. More by this author. From USA Today bestselling author T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge is the tale of a kind-hearted, toad-shaped heroine, a gentle knight, and a mission gone completely sideways. We have 13 read-alikes for Hamnet, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read ...

  19. All Book Marks reviews for Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

    Hamnet is a deeply felt honouring of the warp and weft of life, the pain and joy that are inextricably part of human experience, the many forms resilience can take, and the unexpected directions from which come grace and hope. Read Full Review >>

  20. Book review: Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell

    Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell, Tinder Press, £20. Maggie O'Farrell's bravura new novel opens with a terse "Historical Note", which, given that it is set in the Elizabethan period ...

  21. Review: In 'Hamnet,' Shakespeare Becomes Soap Opera

    "Hamnet," an adaptation of Maggie O'Farrell's best-selling 2020 novel, portrays the vicissitudes of Shakespeare and his wife's marriage, culminating in the death of the couple's young son.

  22. Hamnet Book Review

    July 30, 2021 Hamnet Book Review Book review by Dinh. Read synopsis. Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell got our attention because its title name is interchangeable with Hamlet, which is a play written by William Shakespeare. I'm not a big Shakespeare fan but I'm familiar with the play Hamlet.

  23. Hamnet review

    Hamnet runs at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 17 June. It transfers to the Garrick theatre, London, from 30 September to 6 January . Explore more on these topics

  24. Review

    Review by Margot Roosevelt. February 15, 2024 at 2:00 p.m. EST. Condé Nast employees walk a red-carpeted picket line on Jan. 23 outside the company headquarters in New York during a one-day ...

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    Amal El-Mohtar is the Book Review's science fiction and fantasy columnist, a Hugo Award-winning writer and the co-author, with Max Gladstone, of "This Is How You Lose the Time War." Feb. 12 ...

  27. Kelly Link's debut novel 'The Book of Love' review : NPR

    The Book of Love is a narrative about love — and death and resurrection and kissing people and growing up and sibling rivalry and horror. This is a story about stories that even touches on ...

  28. Find Me the Votes review: Fani Willis of Georgia, the woman who could

    Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman's book came out before the DA's troubles began. It makes a persuasive case for her work If this week's hearing about Fani Willis's affair with her ...