Book review: “Shakespeare’s Secret” by Elise Broach

After reading "Masterpiece" by Elise Broach, I was looking forward to another of her acclaimed books, "Shakespeare’s Secret".

I finished reading it a few days ago, and I was disappointed… and annoyed.

It’s not because it is badly written — Broach is well in command of all the tools necessary to suck a reader in and then move the story along. She is a keen observer of life among the young, with the attendant frustrations and joys.

Unfortunately, "Shakespeare’s Secret" requires more effort to suspend disbelief that did "Masterpiece" — and THAT was a tale involving a friendship between a human boy and an artistically gifted beetle!

Let’s start with the name of the protagonist, the girl named Hero. This is the first of a number of obvious contrivances that don’t really work. The idea is that her parents (her father is a Shakespeare scholar) named her after one of the female characters in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing", much as they also named her older sister. But the older sister is named "Beatrice", a much more conventional — albeit slightly archaic — girl’s name. "Hero" is in no conventional sense a girl’s name… and unless the parents are complete dolts (and they are not written as such), they MUST have known that the name they chose for their second child would cause her problems in life. (Hadn’t they ever heard the old Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue"?) And come on — with all the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, THIS was the only one which came to their minds? To this reader, giving the girl this weird name was an obvious ploy to create issues for the character which would allow the writer to put her through the wringer.

Maybe that is typical of books written for this age group — make a character seem friendless and shunned for most of the book and then give her some kind of turnaround whereby she is suddenly seen as "friendable" by her peers. (I won’t get into the slightly creepy notion in the background of the plot that the only way this can happen is that she is seen hanging out with "the coolest boy in school"… not because she does things or has innate qualities that eventually make her seem appealing and interesting to other kids, but rather that she is perceived as being approved by one of the "cool" kids. Nice message for young girls there.)

But that’s just the beginning of the hard-to-believe twists and turns of this book. That cool boy I just mentioned? He conveniently turns out to be the grandson of the older woman living next door to Hero, even though she has known him for years and never suspected anything. A diamond worth millions of dollars goes missing, and an extensive police search of the house Hero and her family moved into afterwards doesn’t turn up anything… because the clever hider of the diamond hid it in a — well, I don’t want to blow the big reveal, so I’ll just say that the hiding place is pretty obvious and is in plain sight. I don’t want to give away too many details of the plot and the characters’ relationships — suffice it to say that much of that stuff is clearly in the story to provide surprises and neatly wrap up dangling plot threads.

But I think the most annoying thing about this book is the material Broach puts in about the mystery of the "true author" of William Shakespeare’s plays. Not so much because it isn’t interesting — it is — but because Broach makes the cardinal error of putting forth the argument that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon COULDN’T have written the great works attributed to him because he was just a "common businessperson" and as such, how could he know anything about court intrigues and history and all the other things which fill Shakepeare’s plays? I’ve heard this kind of comment before, and it always amazes me that any writer worth his or her salt would say such a thing… because isn’t part of being a writer exploring and researching and imagining things outside of yourself? (Not to mention the absurdly condescending nature of the "common businessperson" remark — as if there haven’t been many examples through history of "common businesspeople" doing uncommon and remarkable things.)

Broach ALMOST redeems herself for this stuff when she has one of the characters reveal near the end that the true "secret" of Shakespeare is that what he wrote in his plays still has resonance for people today, centuries later. That’s very true, and also very obvious to anyone who has ever (a) lived a life, and (b) read a Shakespeare play. I would not call it a "secret", exactly.

I have to say that I enjoyed "Masterpiece" much more than "Shakespeare’s Secret", but I certainly wouldn’t NOT recommend the latter to young readers. It has a lot of good stuff in it, and — assuming you can look past the blatant plot contrivances and somewhat silly coincidences — it is worth the reading… and if it gets people, especially kids, to give the works of Shakespeare a second look, all the better! — PL

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