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Shadows and Shakespeare – ‘All’s Well’

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What’s that you say? A book centered around Shakespeare AND academia? Yes, I WOULD like to know more.

As someone with both a deep and abiding love for the Bard and a personal understanding of the ins and outs of small liberal arts colleges, I was always going to be interested in a book like Mona Awad’s “All’s Well” (Simon & Schuster, $27). However, while that introductory elevator pitch was enough to get me in the door, could it keep me there?

Reader, it most assuredly could. And did.

This is a darkly funny and strange tale, the story of a woman whose professional and personal missteps (both figurative and literal) have left her in a bleak and hopeless place. It’s the story of what can happen when passion curdles into something else, something powered by self-loathing and anger, all of it set against a backdrop of a theatre professor who makes a bargain that she doesn’t understand in a desperate hope to turn around the life she sees slipping away.

Miranda Fitch is locked into a downward spiral. Once an aspiring actress, an on-stage accident leaves her suffering constant pain that no amount of medical assistance can alleviate. She bluffed her way into a position as a professor in a foundering Theatre Studies department at a small liberal arts college, but her ongoing health issues and tendency toward self-medication – not to mention an obsession with the past and what might have been – leaves her teetering on the precipice of disaster.

It doesn’t help that her choice for the department’s annual Shakespeare production – “All’s Well That Ends Well” – is being met by resistance from all corners; the students, the administration and even her fellow faculty members all want a more traditional choice. Specifically, they all want to do “Macbeth,” which only causes Miranda to dig in her heels, even as she’s undermined at all turns.

However, a chance encounter with a mysterious trio of men at a local watering hole changes everything. These strange men seem to know an awful lot about her; they know about her position, her pain and the myriad struggles of her past. A bargain is struck, one whose ramifications are far-reaching.

Suddenly, Miranda’s pain is lessening. Her students have become compliant, if perhaps a little scared. An unexpected donation makes the administration far more willing to allow her to do the show she wants. So many of her problems begin to fade away, leaving her to live a new, more energized life.

But the bill will soon come due … and the price will be far higher than she ever could have anticipated.

“All’s Well” is shot through with an undeniably sinister vibe, offering up a deluge of painful memory, dark jokes and ever-shifting conflict. It’s an engrossing narrative, one that embraces its more supernatural aspects while also grounding the proceedings in the sad reality of a world in which pain – particularly women’s pain – is dismissed and ignored.

It’s rife with Shakespearean touchpoints, references begetting references; the narrative gleefully pulls from the canon, shaping the story with nods both subtle and overt. It’s a wonderful hat-tip to the darkness that squirms beneath the surface of many of the Bard’s work, with Awad finding ways to seamlessly incorporate these many nuggets of Shakespeariana.

It also works as a satiric takedown of a certain kind of small-school theatre department, one driven by the bizarre confluence of ill-informed administrative demands and cult of personality-type faculty figures. It’s an extrapolation of the sorts of interpersonal conflicts that can spring from being forced to constantly fight not just for funding, but for your very position.

All that, plus we’re given a wonderful underlying darkness regarding Miranda herself, a self-obsessed could-have-been whose entire world revolves around pain, both physical and psychic (and perhaps an overlap of the two); it’s a provocative and disconcerting look at the lengths to which one might go to gain the life that one believes one deserves.

Awad’s prose is knotty and complex, but never at the expense of the story being told. It’s a razor’s edge on which to walk, but she manages to write in a manner that is narratively engaging while also being stylistically evocative. The result is a book that leaves you wanting to make note of certain passages while also being almost too propulsive for you to stop reading long enough to make them.

“All’s Well” is in my wheelhouse, of course, bringing together sets and settings that speak deeply to me. However, one doesn’t need to have those same deep-set connections to engage with this book. It is subversive and combative, a work that neither celebrates nor condemns its protagonist, instead choosing to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. It is funny and sad, packed with the kind of desperation that shines through even in moments of triumph. “All’s Well” ends well, to be sure, but its beginning and middle shine just as brightly, even from the depths of the shadows.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 August 2021 07:39

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