Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, was not feeling well. She was lying on a pallet on the floor, slick with feverish sweat, and eleven-year-old Hamnet was the only one home. He ran all over the house, then all over the village, looking for his family, finally calling for the village doctor, but he couldn’t find anyone to help. His father, Will, was in London working with his theater troupe, and he only visited them a couple of times a year. Eventually, Hamnet gave up hope and went home to check on Judith. She was no better, so he curled up next to her on the pallet and went to sleep.
Agnes was working with her bees. Her brother had sent word that the hive was swarming, and no one controlled the bees quite like his married sister. Their mother, too, had had a way with the natural world. They say she walked out of the woods one day and charmed their father, gave him children over the years, and then went back to the wilderness. Now, Agnes was a healer. She grew herbs and put together cures for all the people who stopped by their window. She had never expected to live in the town, along with her playwright husband’s family, and then, over the years, their own children, all in one house with a glove-making shop attached. She missed Will. He had been gone for a long time now, but she knew he was happy writing and performing for the London crowds.
The shock and dread that greet the family members as they all return home takes the length of this beautiful novel to tell. O’Farrell alternates between the tragic fate of Hamnet and the story of Will and Agnes Shakespeare’s courtship and marriage, leading up to this crisis and then beyond. Agnes is a mysterious, yet sympathetic, main character. She remains unmoved by social norms, and is motivated only by her love for her family and the guidance of her heart.
The storytelling in this novel is breathtaking. The reader will be lost in the 16th century, living in historic plague years during a very present pandemic. O’Farrell’s anatomy of a romantic relationship is generous and realistic, allowing space for these two very different people to grow into themselves without losing each other. She takes many pages to tell the critical scene, during which I cried so hard that my dog climbed into my lap to comfort me and my husband patted my arm with a worried expression. The writing was just that intense. So, yes, bring your tissues, but also your sense of wonder.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.