Thursday, November 5, 2015

From a Problem Play to a Challenging Novel

In "The Gap of Time," Jeanette Winterson composes a "cover version" of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," one of his late plays - infrequently performed and considered somewhat problematic by some critics. One of my own professors dismissed it as "silly." The plot certainly stretches credulity, but Winterson's re-envisioning fills in the plot holes of the original and brings it to a satisfying conclusion - more satisfying than the original, actually, since we don't have to depend on a statue coming to life.

I approached this first novel in Hogarth's Shakespeare series with gleeful anticipation and felt a bit let down in the early part of the book, since I didn't feel that Winterson's writing was up to her usual high standards. But then I remembered that I don't much like the early part of the play either, so maybe it's the source material that's the trouble. The plotting and characterization of the novel felt, like the play, stilted and awkward, and I had a hard time getting interested in the characters. (I never managed to get interested in Leo/Leontes, but that's because he's such a shallow jerk in both book and play.) However, once the action shifts to "New Bohemia" (a location much like New Orleans) and focuses on Perdita and her foster father and brother, Shep and Clo, everything picks up, including my interest, and the rest of the book is a real delight. It ends well, with the right couples getting together (I guess) as in so many of Shakespeare's plays.

One of the best parts of the book, though, is not the novel itself but rather Winterson's account of her own involvement with the story, and the personal essay she includes is also a meditation on forgiveness - a key element in Shakespeare's later plays - and time itself. As an adopted child herself, the story of the foundling Perdita has always resonated with her and she jumped at the chance to create her own re-telling. We all probably have stories that hold special places in our hearts and minds, and overall I enjoyed what she did with this one. So be patient, even if, like me, you find it hard to drum up much interest in an arrogant, neurotic, jealous tech magnate at the beginning. It gets much better as it goes along.

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