Friday, May 18, 2018

Speak Easy Speak Love

It's 1927 and down at the Hey Nonny Nonny speakeasy, the jazz is playing and the booze is flowing. Hidden inside a dilapidated manor house on Long Island, seventeen-year-old Hero struggles to keep the place afloat after the death of her mother. With gangs and bootleggers trying to pressure her out of the market, it's going to take her whole crew to keep the speakeasy open.

Luckily, she's got the help of her long-time ally Prince on her side, and sometimes even Prince's mobster connected half-brother, John. The jazz music comes courtesy of rising starlet Maggie, who's loyal to Hey Nonny Nonny to a fault. Plus there's the loving patronage of rich trust fund kid Benedick, who would give anything to run away from his current life of comfort to become a writer. And starting today, there's also Beatrice, Hero's ambitious, would-be doctor cousin, who sees no point in holding her opinions back from anyone. Least of all some upstart, rich boy, writer, like Benedick.

As the summer heats up, so does the battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. And soon, it seems everyone at the Hey Nonny Nonny is at terrible risk of falling in love with each other.

What Makes It So Good

As a teenager, my favorite play by Shakespeare was Much Ado About Nothing. I loved the dynamic between Benedick and Beatrice and I still think some of the funniest scenes in theater ever are the ones where the Prince decides it's time to trick the pair into falling for each other. Also, I loved Denzel Washington. And Keanu Reeves. And Michael Keaton. And of course I loved Emma Thompson. And I loved Kenneth Brannagh almost as much as he loves himself.

In my second year of university, I took a course on Shakespeare's comedies, and this was where I realized that my love of the play was, at least in part, largely based on one fantastic adaptation. Read as plain text, it is staggering how much time is wasted on pretending Hero is dead, in order to give the second half a plot line. The parts I loved best about the show are largely over by the halfway point, and then the pace of the play grinds to a halt.

I came out of that class surprised to realize that, while Kenneth Brannagh may have created my favorite Shakespeare adaptation with his movie, there were stronger scripts in the Bard's canon. I've never seen a bad production of Twelfth Night, because the material is just too good.

So when I found out McKelle George was coming out with a book that was a 1920's update of the story, I was intrigued, because a) I love the Jazz Age and b) even with it's slogging second half, there's still a lot to love about Much Ado About Nothing. It still has some of Shakespeare's best characters. I still ship Benedick and Beatrice like no other couple.

I first heard of Speak Easy Speak Love in a class McKelle George taught at the Storymakers conference in 2017. She and a friend were presenting on the topic of writing books that were based on classic literature, and what went into the process of adaptation. They emphasized the importance of balancing between loyalty to the source material and finding places to make it your own. And the best places to make something your own tend to be where the flaws are in the original.

Of course it's important to still love the source material, and believe me, I came to this book with high expectations because I love the original so much. But it was so nice to not see Hero spend half the story pretending to be dead. It was great that Benedick never has to challenge Claudio and the Prince to a duel (because Hero is pretending to be dead) that never happens (because Hero actually isn't dead) and overall, just wastes everyone's time. Who even likes those scenes? Not me, dear reader.

Aside from some smart updates in terms of plot, the book also excels as a loving adaptation of the Bard's work. Within the theater, it's traditional that directors give their own spin on the setting, since the stage plays Shakespeare wrote are so sparse in terms of set direction. My favorite version of Twelfth Night I ever saw took place in a 1960's beach shack.

Similarly, the setting is so lovingly rendered here. The book is filled with fabulous historical touches, that make the place feel very real, and the Author's Note at the end does a fantastic job outlining where liberties were taken, and what the real-life equivalents of these events were.

The characters are all fantastic as well, though a couple chapters in, I had to come to term with the fact that Emma Thompson was decidedly not playing Beatrice. It almost feels like someone else has been cast in the part. Someone who plays up how smart Beatrice is, rather than how charming. Once I got over that, I loved her. Benedick is utter perfection in his big-headed, big-hearted way and the rest of the cast is just barrels of fun. Overall, I highly recommend it.

What Could Make it Better

Like the play it is based on, the book's plot starts and stutters at times. McKelle George actually does a lot of work to infuse plot into a meandering play, but I think there are some inherent problems that emerge when you base a book on story that feels more like a series of awesome scenes than a fully cohesive narrative.

There's an argument to be made that I'm being unfair to the source material. Story plotting worked differently 500 years ago, and I certainly don't mean to discredit the inherent genius of Shakespeare by poking fun at it here. And it's worth repeating that I do still REALLY love this play. It isn't meant to be overly plot focused, which is why we accept the way the narrative skips around between dramatic and comedic, between the main cast and the Dogberry subplot. There's just so many great characters, with interesting things to do. Who wants to be hogtied to plot when all this other fun stuff is going on?

I bring all this up, because this book is also prone to subplots and taking its sweet time to enjoy a scene. I've seen some reviewers mark the book down for this fact, but to me, it was part of the charm. If the plot had been over-the-top punchy, I'm not convinced it would have felt like Much Ado About Nothing. It would have been decidedly Much Ado About Something.

Regardless, it's still worth mentioning, because it takes a while for the central conflict to land. Whereas the original spends way too long in a dreary conclusion, this book is a little slow to finish setting things up. The masquerade that shapes the opening of the play happens close to the middle of the book. So that should give you an idea of where the balance has swung. Overall, this strikes me as a forgivable decision, because again, the first half of the play is the best part. Might as well spend most of the reader's time there.

So if you're at all a fan of the Bard and especially if you also have a soft spot for historical fiction, pick this one up. You'll be singing Hey Nonny Nonny along with the rest of us.


  1. You can always poke fun at Shakespeare. Some of us have built entire plots on that alone.

    1. LOL! And well you should! I just know there are some who hold the Bard as sacred, so I guess I'm trying to ease them into the idea of making fun of him. Honestly, I think it's how he would have wanted. A modern day Will Shakespeare would have had loads of fun poking fun at and ripping apart the works of the great masters. He built his career on it in his own time period too!