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NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life ... here is a novel ... so gorgeously written that it transports you." —The Boston Globe
England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.
A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
Don’t miss Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, The Marriage Portrait!
O'Farrell (This Must Be the Place) concocts an outstanding masterpiece of Shakespearean apocrypha in this tale of an unnamed bard's family living in Stratford-upon-Avon while his star is rising in London. In 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet's twin sister, Judith, comes down with a sudden, severe illness. Hamnet searches urgently for help, and is treated cruelly by his drunken grandfather, John, a glove maker. Hamnet's mother, Agnes, known and feared for dispensing mysterious homeopathic remedies, is at Hewlands, her family's farmhouse. When she returns home, Judith shows undeniable signs of the bubonic plague, and the diagnosis is confirmed by a doctor. O'Farrell then tells of Agnes and her husband's passionate courtship, and of Agnes's stepmother banishing her from Hewlands after she becomes pregnant. The couple moves into a small, drafty addition to his parent's house, where Agnes's husband grows restless and melancholic in his overbearing, volatile father's presence, and she schemes to send him to London to expand John's business. Throughout, Agnes possesses keen premonitions and is deeply troubled when she gives birth to twins after their firstborn daughter, which contradicts a vision she'd had that the couple's two children will stand by her deathbed. More disturbing, and unbelievable to her, is Hamnet and Judith's sudden trading places on the sick bed. O'Farrell brilliantly explores the married couple's relationship, capturing Agnes's intuition that her husband is destined for great things in London, along with her frustration that his world is unknown to her. The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague's journey to Stratford via a monkey's flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best.