An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 15, 2016

Leveen: Juliet's Nurse

Lois Leveen, Juliet’s Nurse. New York. Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2015.                              
Reviewed by Mikee Delony (

The most common complaint of readers approaching an adaptation of a well-known and beloved story, such as that of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, is a lament or an explosion of frustration because “it’s not like the real story.” Certainly this is the case with some readers of Lois Leveen’s novel, Juliet’s Nurse.  However, disgruntled readers should remember that (a) Shakespeare made quite a few changes to his source material, so his version is not the real story either, and (b) Leveen’s novel is not about Juliet, but as the title clearly states, about Angelica, Juliet’s Nurse. 

Lois Leveen’s novel, Juliet’s Nurse, creates a compelling prequel to Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers.  Noting that Juliet’s nurse is an important character in the play, speaking “the next largest number of lines, following those of Romeo and Juliet” (Author’s Note, 366), Leveen sets out to tell this woman’s story and creates a different kind of love story centered on an ordinary, lower-class woman, manipulated by her priest, beloved by her husband, and at the mercy of the Capelletto family, a woman who loved deeply and suffered greatly, and first person narrative makes the story Angelica’s, from the first word to the last. 

Surprisingly, all I knew when I picked up the novel was that the setting was fourteenth-century Italy. I was immediately captivated by Angelica’s narrative from the beginning, her 30-year love affair with her husband, Pedro, and the arrival of a surprise daughter some years after the tragic deaths of all of her children – six sons – of the plague in one horrific week. I mourned along with Angelica at the loss of her unexpected newborn daughter, and smiled when I read of her opportunity to nurse another newborn, this one named Juliet and born to Lord and Lady Capelletti on the same day as her dead daughter.  Still clueless, even when I learned of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, I did not recognize the connection to Shakespeare’s tale until Mercutio entered the narrative.  

Aware that adaptations are just that, adaptations, I did not expect this novel to follow the course of Shakespeare’s play.  Instead I walked beside Angelica as she loved Juliet as fiercely as she mourned her lost children, for what mother ever forgets those she had borne and raised and lost? Likewise, I admired her passion for her husband and the fervor with which she both missed and desired him, and I celebrated and felt her joy mixed with fear during their stolen moments together in Juliet’s nursery when he snuck in to see her after caring for the property’s bees. 

Love, death, mourning, bees, and families, both rich and poor, dominate Angelica’s story.  As we read of life in the Capelletto household, and particularly see the lived grief, misery, and early aging that marked the very young Lady Capelletto’s life, as well as the striving, scheming, and social climbing practiced by the heirless, aging Lord Capelletto, we learn that wealth and luxury are really meaningless when compared to the rich life of love, laughter, grief, and hard work that Angelica recalls when she thinks of her small, noisy, home in Verona’s poor neighborhood.  Perhaps the novel speaks to readers who have also lived long, watched children grow, and experienced loss.  The nurse’s narrative makes the reader privy to her thoughts, which often center on her sons, their active and noisy lives and their untimely deaths, and always she treasures her second chance with Juliet, whom she nurtures, cossets, and spoils, as she does Juliet’s motherless cousin, Tybalt.  This novel truly explores, as Leveen writes, “the relationship between loss and endurance” (369).

As a metaphor for life, bees and beekeeping provide a constant thread through Leveen’s novel, with their honey, their constant need for care, and their stings. Pedro supports his poor family by situating hives throughout Verona; he cares daily for the bees, harvests the combs to sell for beeswax candles, and makes a variety of mouth-watering treats with the honey.  Likewise, in a vain attempt to counter the social-climbing, the hate, and the self-centered revenge spewed by his uncle, Lord Capaletto, Pedro treats Tybalt as his own son, teaching him both the hard work and joy that comes from doing his job well. 

In this novel the expected “good guys” are not always so good, Juliet’s choices and sometimes those of her doting nurse are foolish and ultimately, tragic, and the Friar is self-serving and often dishonest, so readers expecting to find an expanded version of Shakespeare’s story will be disappointed.  However, those who enjoy a rich, thoughtful, beautifully written narrative in which the narrator and those she loves are fully developed, interesting characters, this book is a delight. 

Mikee Delony
Abilene Christian University