Love and sonnets meet in Shakespeare’s Italy

The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2007. 368 pages.

In The Sonnet Lover (Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-47957-0, $24.95), Carol Goodman takes her readers on yet another exploration into worlds literary and classical. Known for works relating to the ancient world, particularly to Rome — she created a wonderful tale of suspense with insights into the teaching of Latin and the history of the Roman world in The Lake of Dead Languages — Goodman here shifts her focus to the Renaissance, to the sonnet, to William Shakespeare, and to Northern Italy, where numerous poets, most notably Petrarch, helped create the sonnet.

Rose Asher, a professor and a poet teaching at the fictitious Hudson College in Manhattan, has arrived at a place in her life where she feels that her youthful ambitions and dreams have come to a grating end. Though Rose is having a love affair with the president of the college, Mark Abrams, and though she is often idealized and adored by her students — Robin Weiss, described by Rose as “her best student,” an aspiring film-maker and poet, clearly has a crush on her — Rose nonetheless finds herself entering her late 30s with little apparent excitement or purpose in her life.

Her disenchantment and ennui disappear once Robin Weiss sails over the railing of a high-rise building and dies on impact in the street below. With his death, and at the urging of her lover, Rose decides to break away from her routine and spend the summer at La Civetta, an estate outside of Florence known for its great charm and beauty as well as for its association with an obscure female Renaissance poet, Ginevra de Laura (De Laura is a fictional character, based on female Renaissance poets like Veronica Franco). Rumor has long held that de Laura was William Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and Rose becomes convinced, through a series of seemingly disconnected events, that somewhere at La Civetta there lies hidden a manuscript by de Laura.

As the summer progresses, we come to see that other characters in The Sonnet Lover are not always what they seem. Mark Abrams, the perfect college president, holds both ambition and deadly secrets in his heart; Mara Silverman, wife of the head of the college’s film department, carries a secret that will eventually destroy her; La Civetta itself, with its hidden rooms and ghost-ridden past, casts long and dark shadows over Rose, who first went there as an undergraduate herself, and she fell in love with Bruno Brunelli, the professor with whom she had an affair and whom she still loves.

Rose spends the rest of the novel figuring out the circumstances of Robin’s death as well as explicating her own feelings toward Mark Abrams, her former love with Bruno Brunelli, her work in literature and poetry, and the place of La Civetta, with its romance and sense of freedom, in her own life.

In The Sonnet Lover, Goodman does best what she did in her other novels; she introduces us to a distant past and by her splendid descriptions rouses our interest in the scholarly world which is today exploring that past. In one bravura example of how well she mixes the old and new worlds, Goodman employs her husband, the poet Lee Slonimsky, to write the sonnets attributed here to Ginevra de Laura. Goodman also performs grand work in her descriptions of landscapes and buildings, both in Manhattan and in the countryside around Florence The Sonnet Lover is a lovely book to read in the winter if for no other reason than Goodman’s descriptions of the warm and blossoming Italian countryside. Here, for example, Rose walks after many years’ absence to the villa at La Civetta from the gate:

“To my right is the path that leads to the plain gray-stone building that once housed the Convent of Santa Catalina but now serves as the dorm for the students. Everyone just alls it the little villa. The main villa is lemon colored and lies at the end of a long avenue, or viale, of tall cypresses. It’s a popular view featured in all the colleges advertising brochures and on the Web site for the study abroad program. Maybe that’s why I find myself curiously numb as I start down the viale, as if I am approaching picture instead of the real thing, a painted façade that seems to slip in and out between its frame of gray-green cypresses like a woman hiding coquettishly behind a curtain.”

Although Goodman skillfully weaves these varied settings and people into the plot of The Sonnet Lover, the novel does contain some flaws. The second half of the book slows — if not exactly to a crawl, then to an ambling pace that ill-befits a literary thriller. More tellingly, however, Goodman litters her book with such strong hints at what is to come next in the plot and too often the events become predictable. When Rose comments on a step in the villa gardens being loose, for example, we know that soon someone will take a tumble on that step. By shaking us by the lapels at such moments, by smacking us upside the head with clues, Goodman makes even the casual reader aware of an upcoming catastrophe.

Yet these flaws are negligible compared to the many pleasures bestowed by The Sonnet Lover: the twists in the story, the speculation regarding Shakespeare, his sonnets, and his Dark Lady, the academic feuds and frays, and the quest for love itself, a quest featuring both modern and Renaissance lovers. Goodman has the skill to bring alive simultaneously both the worlds of Shakespeare and of modern American academia.

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