Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review: Elizabeth the First Wife

By Miriam Plotinsky

It’s pretty much a given that, as an English teacher, I like Shakespeare. Not to the point of having his face on my wedding cake, a life experience which one enthusiastic colleague of mine can claim, but that’s bordering on obsession. It’s that kind of fixation on the Bard that Elizabeth Lancaster, the protagonist of Lian Dolan’s Elizabeth the First Wife, embraces unapologetically. A Pasadena-based community college English professor with a passion for teaching, Elizabeth lets Shakespeare filter into all aspects of her life, from decoding modern relationships (she’s writing a funny book that compares the dynamics between Shakespearean characters to the interactions between modern-day mortals) to learning life lessons.

As the least accomplished member of an over-the-top, overachieving family (her father is the recipient of the Nobel), Elizabeth struggles to prove to her clan, particularly her snobby mother, that she is happy in her chosen career. It doesn’t help that Elizabeth’s ex-husband, the oddly named FX Fahey, is a major movie star who left her brokenhearted several years before, opting instead to publicly romance a series of stunning models. When FX reappears in Elizabeth’s life and asks her to help him by consulting on a summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the annual summer Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Elizabeth finds herself agreeing to help him not just as a chance to prove herself as a Shakespearean scholar, but also to earn money to renovate her house. Luckily, Elizabeth is over FX, and she’s also interested in the hot political genius who is housesitting for her back in Pasadena. But not as fortuitously, she has to spend the summer convincing Taz, the production’s director, not to do stupid things, like make FX’s Oberon do a scene in the nude.

Elizabeth the First Wife is at its best when Elizabeth is trying to surmount the difficulties her family places in her path. For instance, Anne, Elizabeth’s mother, is always trying to convince Elizabeth to take more prestigious university jobs, and fails to understand that Elizabeth is perfectly happy where she is. Anyone who has ever failed to live up to parental expectations can identify with Elizabeth’s frustration. After all, she doesn’t want to be a famous scholar, and her pride in what she does is inspiring. And Elizabeth’s father is a sweet character, vague and lovable despite his stature as a groundbreaking physicist. He is in league with Elizabeth to help them both evade Anne’s watchful eye, and the result is a charming father-daughter dynamic. As for FX Fahey, the infamous (and famous) ex, while he is probably meant to be the primary source of comic relief, he is almost a distraction from the main plot, which centers on Elizabeth’s getting comfortable with who she is and not what she comes from.

Dolan’s plot, while it could easily follow the usual woman-goes-soul-searching-and-finds-herself construct, manages to stand out because of the regular infusion of Shakespearean references and comparisons. Including fun facts about Shakespeare’s plays not only provides a nice intellectual boost to the plot, but it also cements the notion that there is a reason that his plays have lasted so long. The characters and themes are timeless. That element of Elizabeth the First Wife, coupled with the titular character’s passion for teaching and helping students be successful, makes for a satisfying read that is not just fun, but also fulfilling.

Thanks to Wunderkind PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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