NESFA Members' Reviews

Chasing Shakespeares

by Sarah Smith

Atria, 2003, ISBN 0-7434-6482-6

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Joe Roper is an English grad student at Northeastern University, hard at work cataloging the Kellogg Collection. This is a collection of books, letters, and whatnot--mostly whatnot--begun by a woman who sincerely believed that she was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots, and collected everything vaguely related to Mary and her times. Joe and his thesis advisor, Roland Goscimer, hope the collection will contain clues to the "lost" years of William Shakespeare's life, between the time he is last documented to have been in Stratford-upon-Avon and his first published works. Unfortunately, everything in the collection purporting to be from Elizabethan times is a forgery, usually a bad forgery. Joe's fellow grad student and partner in cataloging, Mary Catherine O'Connor, gives up in disgust and leaves for London to become a nun.

And then two things happen, nearly simultaneously. Joe finds a letter in the collection, which looks real and purports to be from William Shakespeare, and a very rich Harvard grad student, Posy Gould, arrives to join him in working on the collection.

In the letter, Shakespeare says he didn't write plays and poems published under his name.

Joe sees "forgery which will make me a laughingstock and wreck any hope of a career." Posy sees "genuine letter which will make my reputation."

Posy is very convincing about the benefits of taking the letter to London to be examined by a very good expert who, because he "adooores me," will keep quiet about it until they're ready to go public. Posy is also gorgeous. They go to London, and while Posy's expert is working on the letter, they start chasing documentary evidence of Shakespeare, in the British Library and elsewhere.

They read thunderingly bad and startlingly good Elizabethan poetry. They meet certifiably insane Oxfordians, i.e., adherents of the notion that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, really wrote Shakespeare's works. They meet Posy's father, his mistress, and assorted crazy relatives. They meet, or at least Joe meets, a surprisingly sensible Oxfordian, who assures Joe that "God is a librarian." (Somewhere, evidence exists that will establish who wrote Shakespeare's plays.) They make love in the grass of Oxford's country home, and in a small English car. They see a very Disneyfied Stratford-upon-Avon. Joe, grandson of a Vermont farmer and son of a small town Vermont hardware store owner, is living a Cinderella-like experience. And all the time, midnight and the moment of truth is bearing down on them, when they have to decide what the letter means and whether they're going to go public with it.

This is genuinely life and death stuff for young academics, and Smith keeps the reader quite effectively inside Joe's head as he gets caught up in new pro-Oxford evidence and rushes towards likely academic disaster.

Chasing Shakespeares is great fun if you care even a little bit about Shakespeare, and what reader of sf and fantasy doesn't?

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