Wednesday, 31 January 2018

#CBR10 Book 6: "Speak Easy, Speak Love" by McKelle George

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm lazy, and it sums up the book nicely:

Six teenagers' lives intertwine during one thrilling summer full of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals in this sparkling retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

After she is kicked out of boarding-school, seventeen-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle's estate in Long Island. But Hey Nonny Nonny is more than just a rundown old mansion. Beatrice's cousin, Hero, runs a struggling speakeasy out of the basement - one that might not survive the summer. 

Along with Prince, a poor young man determined to prove his worth; his brother, John, a dark and dangerous agent of the local mob; Benedick, a handsome trust-fund kid trying to become a writer; and Maggie, a beautiful and talented singer; Beatrice and Hero throw all their efforts into planning a massive party to save the speakeasy. Despite all their worries, the summer is beautiful, love is in the air and Beatrice and Benedick are caught up in a romantic battle of wits that their friends may be quietly orchestrating in the background.

Hilariously clever and utterly charming, McKelle George's debut novel is full of intrigue and 1920s charm. 

In the end notes of this novel, McKelle George refers to Much Ado About Nothing as Shakespeare's most romantic play. I don't think she's wrong, and despite Hero being rather a drip in the play (and the way her storyline resolves isn't really romantic at all - she should have told Claudio where to stuff it), but the banter between Beatrice and Benedick is solid gold and one of the best examples of enemies to lovers I can think of. Back in December 2016, I read a modern YA adaptation of the play, The Only Thing Worse Than Me is You, which I liked a lot. When I saw this reviewed on Forever Young Adult, I was intrigued (1920s America is a time period I really don't know all that much about). What I can tell you (having read the end notes and seen the bibliography at the back of the book), Ms George seems to have really done her research before writing the novel.

The Lily Anderson modern adaptation was obviously a lot more loosely based on the play. Here, every chapter heading is taken from the play, and despite being set in a very different time period than the original, with a much more diverse cast, Speak Easy, Speak Love really does follow the major beats of the play very faithfully. In the original, it's clear that Beatrice and Benedick have a long history of bickering, here they meet for the first time towards the beginning of the novel. Beatrice wants to become a doctor, but money troubles has made it impossible for to complete her schooling. She cannot understand how Benedick can skip out on his final exams and blithely ignore his graduation, throwing away the privilege and opportunity he has because of his dreams of becoming a writer.

Margaret, or Maggie, is not Hero's faithful servant here, but an ambitious young black woman who dreams of becoming a jazz singer. In the play, John is pretty much an irredeemable villain, trying to ruin everything for everyone else for no particularly good reason (as far as the audience is told). Ms George has made him a much more complex character, although his motivations and the reasons for many of his actions are only gradually revealed, but his rivalry with his brother is a lot more nuanced and he's a lot more than just a stock bootlegging mob member. The author even finds a creative way to incorporate Dogberry and Verges, the rather silly comic relief characters in a believable way, which I was rather impressed with.

As I said, the whole "Hero is ruined" story strand of the original play is not one I'm overly fond of, so I was very interested in seeing how Ms. George was going to deal with it. In Lily Anderson's book, the "Hero" character is accused of cheating and temporarily expelled from her fancy prep school. In this book, I really liked the slightly convoluted way it came about that she was accused of faithlessness, and temporarily abandoned by some of her supporters, but even better how she is eventually and much more believably redeemed (no faked deaths here).

This is McKelle George's debut novel and I think she did a really good job with it. I'm absolutely going to keep an eye out for whatever she decides to write next.

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm not entirely sure why the stylised silhouettes dissolve into artful swirls of smoke below thigh level, I generally really like this cover. It's got an art deco feel that suits the Jazz Age/Prohibition/swinging 1920s era the book is set in. I'm not sure which of the characters the silhouettes are supposed to portray (there are three main romantic couples in this book, after all), but I can't imagine that pragmatic tomboy Beatrice would ever wear such an elaborate flowery headdress as the female cover model. Now if she was in overalls, maybe.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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