LEARWIFE by J.R. Thorp
Pegasus Books, 2021
Classic literature retold through the eyes of a minor (or in this case, absent) female character is a trend that I am honestly growing a bit weary of, so perhaps some of my frustration with this book is down to the fact that I have read its ilk so many times in recent years. Reclaiming women’s voices in fiction is an exercise that appeals to me so much in theory, and I’ve certainly read quite a few standouts in this subgenre, but so often these stories just hit the exact same exact narrative beats, examine the exact same themes which can be summarized, in brief, as: history has not been kind to women, isn’t that sad. I mean, yes, of course, but I don’t need a novel-length project to tell me what can be summed up in a sentence.
Learwife isn’t quite a retelling, as it begins right where King Lear leaves off. I have to say right away that I was never fully on board with this premise: the ending of Lear feels so apocalyptic that extending the story feels fundamentally incompatible with the text in a way that I struggled with. (Also, in case you don’t know this about me: hi, my name is Rachel and King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play and literally one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time and I have read it more times than I can count and I’m afraid that I can’t divorce myself from my love of this play when evaluating retellings.) In Learwife, JR Thorp accounts for the conspicuous absence of Lear’s wife in the original story by positing that she was banished to an abbey shortly following the birth of Cordelia, the couple’s youngest daughter. Learwife begins with Lear’s wife receiving the news of Lear and her children’s death—and then the novel just spins its wheels for several hundred pages, with Lear’s wife at the abbey, considering visiting the place where Lear and her daughters died, but instead navigating nunnery politics while treating the reader to the odd flashback to her life at court.
The thing about Learwife that I struggled so much with was the fact that it didn’t engage with the original story in any kind of worthwhile way. The mystery of why Lear’s wife was banished is a lukewarm attempt at holding the reader’s interest; the reveal is not only boring, but I also think it crumbles under a single ounce of scrutiny if you hold it up next to King Lear—it just isn’t compatible with events and characters in a way that I think Thorp intends for it to be. But even if she didn’t: for a novel which proposes to answer the age-old question of what happened to Lear’s wife, I guess I was just hoping for that answer to be something that could realistically supplement the original play. A few quotes from Shakespeare are scattered throughout Learwife, like the following—I honestly just found the result a bit corny and try-hard:
Is that my name? I seem to lose it. I reach for it sometimes and there is nothing. Hands empty; hands full of water, of girls’ hair. I smile. Well, it does not matter. Nothing will come of nothing.
I wish I felt like this was achieving something, but it honestly just leaves me with the impression that Thorp is sitting there patting herself on the back for shoehorning one of Lear‘s most recognizable lines in there. Nothing in this book does any work to augment or enrich the original play’s events or themes.
But even putting that aside, even just attempting to evaluate this on its own merits and not contrast it to Shakespeare, I guess I just don’t understand what the point of this book was. It’s repetitious and thematically anemic; the abbey scenes are dull and the flashbacks of court are silly anecdotes that do nothing to craft a novel that stands on its own. This whole book feels like it serves no purpose except to construct the identity of a woman who remains elusive even after reading hundreds of pages of her stream-of-consciousness narration.
Also, a brief detour: in this book, Learwife had had a first husband, named Michael, of all things, and I just found that so silly and incongruous that it’s worth mentioning. Also, the name Michael, as I understand it, has been used in England since the twelfth century; the legend of Lear, or Leir, would have taken place around the eighth century BCE. A friend did my homework for me and listened to a podcast with Thorp where she talked about deliberately transposing the play’s setting to follow the advent of Christianity, as she was particularly interested in the religious tension in medieval England; a theme that I didn’t think was given enough weight here to justify the change in setting. And speaking of changes: Lear is canonically eighty; here she makes him much younger, around fifty, a choice that chafes with the original text and doesn’t really give the reader anything new to chew on.
Perhaps if I loved King Lear less I could have loved Learwife more, but I also found the prose style overwrought and tedious so at the end of the day I don’t think I was ever going to get on with this book. It seems to have been mostly well-received (Jane Smiley, the author of my favorite King Lear retelling, gave it a mostly favorable review; and just anecdotally, none of my Goodreads friends has given this under a 4-star rating) so I’m not sure that I can in good conscience tell you to avoid if it appeals to you, but wow, literally nothing about this book worked for me. It didn’t prompt me to think about the original play in a new way and it didn’t give me enough to enjoy it as a story in its own right and I’m mostly just annoyed that I wasted my time with it.