Carol Goodman is one of those extraordinary writers whose novels get better and better. Her newest work, THE SONNET LOVER, is rich in history, literature, art, poetry, theater, visual arts, word pictures, mystery and corpses. The action moves back and forth in time, chronicling past events with verve and a narrative of its own. Subplots, behind-the-scenes skullduggery, a love triangle, suspicious secrets, betrayal and a final reckoning at a writers’ retreat in Italy keep the plot hot and readers riveted to the edge of their chairs. Goodman understands that with so much going on and with so many characters, she must tie everything together into a cohesive whole.
THE SONNET LOVER poses an interesting theory: Did William Shakespeare, at 17, arrange a clandestine meeting in Florence, with his “Dark Lady,” the woman to whom he wrote sonnets? Scholars and others have pondered over his sonnets numbered 127-152 for any clues as to who this “sonnet lover” could have been and if she existed beyond the Bard’s imagination. If this cache is really the lost documents of a woman who knew and loved Shakespeare, then history could be turned upside down. Readers are led to believe that her “responses” in poems and sonnets are to her lover “Will,” and they are at the heart of the novel. Rumor has it that these 16th-century works could be hidden somewhere in La Civetta.
Rose Asher is a teacher of Renaissance poetry at Hudson College in New York City. She is having an affair with the school president, Mark Abrams, and is also very close to one of her students, Robin Weiss. While Rose is disappointed that Robin has changed his major to filmmaking, screenwriting, playwriting and directing, she is still his mentor. Thus, when he comes to her just before a student film competition in which he entered one of his projects, he asks to speak to her.
“…You were at La Civetta when you were in college and I wondered if some of the same teachers were there. I’m going back…and I am trying to decide what classes to take.” La Civetta is an exquisite villa in Tuscany, and its owner, Cyril Graham, a former Hudson bigwig, allows students to take classes there every summer. Rose was there when she was a student, and in some ways her life both began and ended that summer. She is sure that the man she was in love with is in Rome and nowhere near the grounds. When she tells Robin this he says, “Bruno Brunelli, right? He’s back.” Rose cuts the conversation short and promises to meet up with Robin after the evening’s entertainment.
Back in her office, she primps as she “puts her face on” before making her appearance at the celebration of new films by young filmmakers. Mark silently enters her office and sneaks up behind her. They chat for a few minutes, and then he drops his “bomb.” He is going to be at La Civetta for the summer, and Cyril Graham has asked that Rose accompany him. Rose knows that Cyril Graham is cunning and amuses himself by dangling his legacy, La Civetta, in front of various institutions of higher learning. But Mark tells her that the “sly old fox” is on the verge of bequeathing it to Hudson College…[a villa] estimated to be worth nearly a billion dollars.” He reveals that he is going to La Civetta to “schmooze” and to plead his case in person. She is reluctant but finally decides to face the demons she left there years ago. Several others on the staff and a few students are attending as well, which forebodes nasty things.
But before the trip, tragedy strikes on the night of the student competition. Robin Weiss, who won first place in the film competition, either falls, jumps or is pushed off the crowded balcony where the celebrants are crowded together. They are too shocked to know what, if anything, they actually saw or what really happened. Just before Robin went over the rail, a handsome young man who resembles a Byronic hero and is craftily named Orlando crashes through the crowd in a fury and accuses Robin of stealing his ideas. In the next second Robin is dead and Orlando runs away.
These two young men have been competing in a search for the sonnets alleged to have been written by the hand of “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.” The story goes: Ginevra de Laura (Dark Lady?) finally went to a convent and perhaps brought her writings with her. But “the library’s catalog was lost in a flood.” What was rescued was brought to La Civetta, and while Cyril Graham was attempting to catalog, he “complained that one of the student researchers…stole a rare manuscript.” But is this true? Did he ever try to find the alleged thief and whatever it was he stole? As the plot moves along, Rose is allowed into the hallowed place where few have tread, to see what if anything she can do to bring some order to the chaos.
Tension and pathos are rife throughout this riveting novel: every character has an agenda of their own and are competing with each other in one way or another. Nobody trusts anyone else, and many millions of dollars are at stake for several people who have no scruples and are only interested in what Hollywood can bring them in terms of money and/or fame. Lives are at stake, and at least one attempted murder occurs during a student rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream worthy of Shakespeare himself. And later, a murder most foul descends upon La Civetta.
THE SONNET LOVER is beautifully realized and imbued with such rich panoply of the arts and what happens when academics lose sight of the real world. Carol Goodman’s gift is in her prose and plot; she offers readers a great puzzle wrapped around a mystery that is woven together into a conundrum. She reveals her innate talent in this, her fifth novel. Her ear for dialogue (both in speech and interior monologue) adds verisimilitude to her believable characters. Her choice and depiction of setting reads as a word picture; then, somewhat like the Pied Piper, she mesmerizes readers who insert themselves into her story. The journey is through a maze of high velocity intrigue and an interesting view of human nature. The travelogue and descriptions of the Italy that is the backdrop for THE SONNET LOVER serves to enrich the story, as it opens a door to the Renaissance as she juxtaposes it upon the present.
Goodman clearly has done her research and obviously knows her facts. She is a teacher in New York City, and one can see that her students are privileged to be in her classes. Anyone interested in a highly satisfying mystery, a literary tour and the machinations of the academics’ world should not miss this novel. Then, as a further treat, take a look at the other books in her body of work.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on June 12, 2007
The Sonnet Lover