3 January 2012
Review 3: The Fool's Girl by Celia Rees
A historical novel for a more serious-minded YA reader with a clever take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night but that could perhaps have benefitted from a little more heart.
First Line: "Have you seen a city under sack?"
Story: The story of both what happened after Twelfth Night and what came to inspire the play itself; so rather elliptical in nature. Violetta is the daughter of Viola and the Duke Orsino who has been forced to flee to London after Sebastian becomes a tyrant ruler and sells her and Feste into slavery and Malvolio steals the ancient relic that is the spiritual centre of Illyria. Whilst in London Feste and Violetta try to recover the relic through a plot that gets Will Shakespeare involved who is inspired whilst trying to help them. Various characters from Twelfth Night are brought in such as Maria and Toby who are living in squalor in London but help Violetta hide from Malvolio nonetheless. Rees also provides a detailed explanation of what happened after the play finishes, not just passing comments to bring Violetta to London. Violetta also deals with a childhood friendship turning to romance as Sebastian's rebel son, Stephano, is in London in the service of the Venetian ambassador. I was torn on my feelings about playing with Twelfth Night, I really liked the concept and enjoyed the way the characters were pulled together but there was a part of me that was sad for the way Rees pulls apart the happiness at the end of the play - Olivia and Sebastian's unhappy marriage particularly and the way that Sebastian turns out to be so horrendous. Viola's mysterious death as well just turns it all a bit sour. I also felt the story took a little while to get going and I didn't really feel any tension until the very end of the climax. There were plot elements, such as Viola's stay in the forests around Stratford with a mysterious couple that I would have liked to read more about.
Characters: Unfortunately I found Violetta a little unappealing; she is very confident almost to the point of arrogance and Rees doesn't really give us much more to go on personality wise. I felt that focusing her determination around the relic would put many readers off as it is important to her for as it is a relic of Christ's birth - the idea of relics is rather unfamiliar to most readers. I must admit I didn't really care whether she got the relic back or not - there is a point in the novel where she and her friends are assured safety and help but she refuses because she hasn't retrieved the relic, putting them all back in danger. For me, her determination was at times misguided and not in a particularly appealing way. She does silly things like continuously venture out alone despite having kidnapped at least twice.
I would have also liked a bit more development in terms of her romance with Stephano as we aren't really given many reasons for why they are so in love with each other. There is also the same point about playing with characters I raised above - I didn't really enjoyed Rees tampering so much with the characters of Orsino, Viola, Olivia and Sebastian and it kind of spoilt Twelfth Night for me. The character I really did like was Shakespeare; I thought Rees wrote him very well and managed to fit in what we do know about him around her story without having to play with things too much. I enjoyed exploring the idea of what might have inspired him.
Writing: Rees is undeniably a talented writer, her novel Witch Child is wonderful. In particular her descriptions of settings are authentic and evocative - her description of the falling down place Maria and Toby live in really brought to life the horrendous smells of Elizabethan London and the description of the Globe theatre is exciting for Shakespeare fans as it really brings it to life. The writing is good in a rather emotionless way and personally I prefer a little more heart to novels. I have just bought a copy of this for my library and I'm not expecting it to be super popular with my students, but I may well be proven wrong. Maybe Violetta will prove more sympathetic to them as teenagers than to myself.
Cover Image: Appealing, an example of when using a cover model works well although it does nothing to alleviate the problem of the character of Violetta as coming across as rather cold and haughty. I think it will definitely attract the readers it is aiming for.
Try it if you liked: Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer or Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper
Summary: I had high expectations for this novel as I love historical novels, Shakespeare and new twists on old stories but it just didn't live up them. The strengths lie in its wonderful descriptions of Elizabethan London. For me, it played around too much with a well-loved play, the heroine didn't really appeal and the plot could have done with some tightening up. A great idea that doesn't live up to its potential.