Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Elizabeth the First Wife
By Lian Dolan
Prospect Park Books
Paperback: 304 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1938849053, May 7, 2013
Elizabeth Lancaster is pretty happy with her life. She’s an English professor at a community college, where she spends her days helping her students muddle through the perplexing works of William Shakespeare and understanding thesis statements. Much to the dismay of her over-achieving family, who would rather see her teaching at a more prestigious institution—or at least married with a child or two—Elizabeth is perfectly content living in her late grandmother’s house surrounded by books and puttering in the garden.
Her life changes with the sudden re-entry of her ex-husband into her small, orderly life. But Elizabeth’s ex isn’t just anyone—he’s mega-movie star FX Fahey, who makes a grand entrance into one of Elizabeth’s Shakespeare classes with a proposition. He’s part of a groundbreaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a well-respected Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, directed by an edgy and unpredictable film director, and he wants to hire Elizabeth as an advisor. Elizabeth, who is content with her life but agrees that things can use a little more excitement and her bank account can use a little more cushioning, reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, she reasons, she’ll use the summer to work on a Shakespeare-themed book she’s been writing (in her head, at least) for some time.
The book’s pacing, steady and compelling from the beginning, moves along practically at lightning speed once Elizabeth and her step-niece Maddie (whom Elizabeth hires as her assistant) arrive in Ashland. In what seems like no time at all, Elizabeth and Maddie are adopted by a stray dog (newly-named Puck, naturally), settle into their new funky, artsy, bohemian surroundings, and get caught up in the exciting creative energy of live theater.
The production, well-received from its opening night, gets even more attention when a controversy involving Maddie hits the press. Suddenly, Elizabeth is thrust into a media spotlight and her peaceful little summer of consulting on a truly visionary interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved works and working on a book is turned upside down.
Elizabeth the First Wife stops short of being just another beach read. Call it a “beach read for the literary-minded woman”, due in no small part to the many references to Shakespeare used throughout the book. Besides Dolan’s usage of a fair number of quotes throughout the storyline, each chapter begins with a fun “personality profile” of Shakespeare’s heroines, Cosmo-magazine-type quizzes (“Which Shakespearean Bad Boy Is For You?”), famous couples, notable quotes, and their modern-day pop culture counterparts (in one chapter, a Team Romeo vs. Team Hamlet vs. Team Twilight comparison chart), which all tie back to the book Elizabeth is working on while consulting on Midsummer. This proves that the Bard still influences many relationships of all types, whether friends, lovers, ex-lovers, and families. I thought it was a very unique element that kept the story from just being fluffy and light. While a very easy read, there was some substance to it, as well.
Elizabeth Lancaster could be described as a very reluctant heroine. Perfectly content with her single status, she doesn’t realize just how small and predictable her life has become until she goes to Ashland and everything about her life gets shaken up—in a good way, as it turns out. It would have been an obvious choice for Elizabeth and FX to fall in love and get back together, but luckily Dolan didn’t take the predictable route. She plants the seed of a potential love interest early on in the book, and although there is some question of “Who will she choose?” as the story goes on, the answer becomes clearer with each chapter—even when events take a turn for the worse.
I found Elizabeth to be extremely likeable—perhaps a bit too attached to her routine and a little hesitant to break out of her shell, but that often happens to people without them even realizing it. That seemed to be the case with Elizabeth. She admits a few times throughout the book that she is intimidated by her brilliant, accomplished family—her father won the Nobel Prize, one of her sisters is actively working on cures for cancer, and her brother-in-law is a Congressman. I wasn’t put off by any of the supporting characters, either, mainly because it’s obvious that when times get tough, they pull together and help each other. Dolan didn’t make any one character any more grating or difficult to like than another, which also helped to move the plot right along. By the end of the novel I almost wanted to meet this family and perhaps go to one of their get-togethers. Rather than coming off as arrogant, despite his wealth and fame FX Fahey is portrayed as a grown man who still carries the insecurities of a young actor just starting out (a fact even Elizabeth notices in a number of scenes), which keeps him from being too self-centered and annoying.
From the opening scene, it is clear that Elizabeth the First Wife is different than most of the books in its genre. By the end, Elizabeth Lancaster is as surprised as the reader at the radically different direction her life takes, all because she said yes to taking a few chances—a lesson many of us can take to heart.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com