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Mistress Shakespeare    by Karen Harper Amazon.com order for
Mistress Shakespeare
by Karen Harper
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2010 (2009)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Ricki Marking-Camuto

In her extraordinary new novel, Karen Harper imagines what life would have been like for Anne Whately, the supposed Dark Lady of William Shakespeare's sonnets and his first wife. Harper deftly transports the reader to Elizabethan England in Mistress Shakespeare, while weaving a story of theatre, political intrigue, and love.

After Anne Whately's father starts a pack train in competition with the one the Shakespeares sponsor, Will Shakespeare is forbidden to see her. However, this does not stop the two from falling in love and secretly handfasting in Anne's hometown of Temple Grafton, just outside Stratford. But the course of true love never did run smooth. Days later, Will is forcibly married to Anne Hathaway, who is carrying his child.

Anne Whately decides moving away will be the best thing for her broken heart and makes the London end of her pack train the business end. She moves in with wine merchant friends of her deceased father and quickly adjusts to life in the bustling city, keeping her marriage a secret. A few years late, Will is able to follow his dream of becoming an actor and arrives in London where he tracks down Anne, his true love.

The two start a stormy relationship that must remain secret or it will ruin Will, despite the fact that Anne feels she is his lawful wife. Through plagues, persecution, and many plays, Anne and Will's relationship weathers quite a few battles, and while they continue fighting and separating, their reunions are always filled with bliss.

Harper not only shows skill in imagining what it would have been like if William Shakespeare did indeed have two wives, as records seem to indicate, but also shows skill in transporting the reader straight to Elizabethan England. With just the right amount of imagery, the world around Anne comes alive, letting the reader partake in the cold and heartbreak the day Anne's best friend died, the smells and sorrows she endured during the plague, and the heat and adrenaline she felt as the Globe burned down.

Anne Whately is portrayed as a strong, noble character, not afraid to live her life despite complications in love. Will is also an understandable character as Harper shows his conflicting loyalties to love and duty and how he grows to make both work. Karen Harper demonstrates a true talent in historical fiction. Mistress Shakespeare is a beautifully rendered portrait of the woman who loved William Shakespeare and the world around her.

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