Randolph Reads

The blog where Randolph College discusses good reads.

Welcome to Randolph Reads, a monthly(ish) blog where the Randolph community shares its love of reading! You can find our latest post below, as well as links to past reviews. Are you a member of the Randolph community with a good book recommendation? We'd love to hear it! Please contact Research & Instruction Librarian Kelsey Molseed (kmolseed@randolphcollege.edu) if you are interested in submitting a review.

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This month, English Professor Mara Amster recommends Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O'Farrell

July 2021

I admit that, as a Shakespearean by training, I often find myself bored by fictional versions of Shakespeare’s life. Perhaps it is because the historical facts that we know are both relatively few and much repeated, or perhaps it is because the fictional versions feel unconnected to the gorgeous language of his plays and poetry. Or perhaps it is something else.

Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful, haunting Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague has made me reevaluate my stance. In O’Farrell's novel, William Shakespeare’s name never appears. The focus, instead, is on those he leaves behind in Stratford: his wife and his children. Moving back and forth from the 1580s and 1590s, we are witness to an unexpected courtship of an 18-year-old Latin tutor and an older mysterious woman who has a gift for healing, a marriage that is complicated by the problematic presence of extended family, and a family nearly destroyed by grief and loss.

The historical record has not been kind to Anne (Agnes) Hathaway, but O’Farrell’s portrait is generous and luminous. It is Agnes who encourages her frustrated husband to move to London; it is Agnes who provides him with the numerous botanical references that are scattered throughout the plays; it is Agnes who mourns and is shattered when their son, Hamnet, dies of plague in 1596; and it is Agnes who understands what it means that her husband writes a play about fathers and sons and memory.

It was no surprise to me that Hamnet received numerous awards when it was published last year: the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the 2021 Dalkey Literary Award’s novel of the year. Yet, the reason to read is not because it has been on virtually every “best books of the year” list. The reason to read it is that it is a book for our particular moment in time: it is a painful and passionate portrait of what we do when the world is beset by plague and all we can do to get through is find ways to love one another.