Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Juliet's Nurse"

Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. A confirmed book geek, Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard, the University of Southern California, and UCLA, and taught on the faculty of UCLA and of Reed College. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and on NPR, as well as in numerous literary and scholarly journals and in film and performing arts festivals.

Leveen applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Juliet's Nurse, and reported the following:
Juliet's Nurse imagines the 14 years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by Angelica, the hired wet-nurse (she has the largest number of lines in Shakespeare's play, after the title characters, so I figured she deserved her own novel). Page 69, the very end of a chapter, may be the shortest page in Juliet's Nurse:
I searched and searched, and found the pearl. And if it was any sin to take it, surely it is absolution to give it over to the Church.

“I prayed to the Holy Mother to help me find the pearl Juliet choked on, and she did,” I say. “Only one, so that must be what the Blessed Maria knows the Church should have.”

Friar Lorenzo looks at me. Looks, I swear, into my very soul. Then he pockets his precious gem and sends us back to Ca’ Cappelletti.
These 88 words offer a fascinating glimpse into Angelica as both a character and a narrator. She is constantly caught between institutions and events against which she is powerless, on the one hand, and her unwavering impulse to assert herself and do what she thinks is best for Juliet, on the other hand. Because the novel is first-person narration, we only hear Angelica's version of events, meaning readers have to decide to what extent they do or don't believe her, even as we see her trying to twist situations to her advantage.

This particular page reveals a woman in 14th-century Italy who has worked out her own relationship to Catholicism, which governs so much of life in this time and place. She considers the possibility that she's sinning but then absolves herself of it. That's especially telling given that she's off to see Friar Lorenzo (Romeo and Juliet fans will recognize him by Shakespeare's Anglicized version of his name, Friar Laurence), who is her confessor but to whom she is decidedly not confessing. In fact, she's in a bit of a power struggle with him, because she's supposed to bring him more than one pearl but doesn't. As a woman who breastfeeds for a living, she regularly identifies (or perhaps overidentifies) with the Virgin Mary, whom she invokes here to justify her actions and to give herself more religious authority in her exchange with Friar Lorenzo.

It's important to consider that Angelica believes every word that appears on this page. She doesn't perceive herself as manipulative or self-justifying or competing with Friar Lorenzo. This might seem to make her overbearing as a narrator and a character, yet throughout the novel Angelica's complete devotion to Juliet wins us over, at least most of the time. Ultimately, this mini-scene signals the beginning of a conflict between Angelica and the friar that grows more significant later in the book. But it also shows us both Angelica's strengths and her flaws, which is one of the serendipitous wonders of the page 69 test.
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--Marshal Zeringue