The Shakespeare Manuscript, by Stewart Buettner
I picked this book up by browsing through the Kindle Top 100 selling free books list. The premise looked interesting to me—an old manuscript that appears to be an earlier draft of the Hamlet story, or more accurately, a prequel to Hamlet, shows up in a trunk of old documents and a struggling theater troupe decides to mount a production in hopes that it will bring them the boost they need. And it was interesting, and even bordered on can’t-put-it-down (I really wanted to see what happened next), but ultimately it was more frustrating than anything else.
You see, one of the ground rules of writing is Show, Don’t Tell. From reading the description of this book and the author’s experience in writing, I don’t know if he’s a trained writer; I got the impression that he’s something else (a theater type, maybe?) who got an idea and decided to write a book about it. I think it’s also semi-self-published, which, good for him. But at any rate it seems clear that even if he is a trained writer, he missed class the day they explained Show, Don’t Tell.
I’m not talking about his descriptive diction or his approach to writing individual scenes. I’m talking about plot. Put simply: too much of the action took place offstage. There were so many times in this book when MAJOR plot points were not shown; someone told us about them later in passing. I felt severely cheated in a lot of instances because even the telling tended to gloss over what I thought were important parts. One of the more egregious examples: one chapter ends with one of the major characters being rushed away from the rehearsal retreat in an ambulance. It’s not until several chapters later that anyone even mentions him again and we find out what happened. And those intervening chapters are full of scenes and incidents where all the people who watched the ambulance leave are together; where it would be natural and right to explain what the resolution of that particular piece of drama is; where, in short, it feels unnatural to NOT mention it. This isn’t creating an aura of mystery or suspense to serve the plot of the story; this is straight up withholding information from the reader just because you want to have a big shocking reveal later.
(It’s like starting Gone With the Wind with the picnic at Tara and then skipping ahead to a scene where Scarlett, in between wondering if Rhett really loves her or that Belle Watling character, thinks in passing that he just hasn’t been the same since Atlanta got burned down and everything was destroyed and I nearly starved to death in the ruins of Tara, and does he really like me or is it just in my imagination?)
Other scenes of omission (sorry; my dad is hopelessly addicted to puns and sometimes I just can’t help myself) aren’t as obvious, but they are just as annoying. Yes, sometimes it’s a good and effective trick to show a scene through its aftermath, but you actually have to 1) explain enough of what happened in the scene that the aftermath makes sense and 2) have the aftermath actually move somewhere and have some sort of action or resolution in re: said scene. I feel like I got half of a good novel: the anguished uncertainty of love interior monologue half. There were so many words spent on what the two main viewpoint characters thought of their respective love interests that it really underscored how many words WEREN’T said about actual plot or action scenes.
Things I would love to have seen or to have had explained:
*What is up with the main character’s sudden-onset agoraphobia anyway? As in, how did it get started and how is she suddenly miraculously okay enough with it to function?
*What is up with the dead brother/son that nobody ever mentions? Even when they finally get to this explanation, it isn’t explained.
*What was the horrible thing the professor said to the love interest that caused the major insurmountable fight that is then surmounted in roughly two minutes of interior monologue?
*What’s the backstory between main character and skeazy actor? It’s mentioned so many times that there IS a backstory but we are NEVER given any details.
*Did the wife really flirt with the brother-in-law or was the husband just really drunk?
*Where the heck did that divorce come from? (Oh, wait, left field is where.)
*What happened after said divorce came out of said left field?
*Why is main character still fighting with older brother? Why does older brother put up with it? Why does he work for a politician?
*While we’re at it, what’s the deal with brother-in-law? Or with secretary? Or with any number of people, all of whom seem to be important cogs in this book and have important scenes that ALL HAPPEN OFFSTAGE?
*Is British bookseller actually creepy or is it just the aftereffects of crazy dad’s amnesia?
*Who really wrote the manuscript? (Actually, this one I was okay with the ambiguity on—this book is more about the waves the manuscript causes than the actual manuscript itself. It’s just that, with all the other stuff that got left out, I felt like maybe the author could have thrown us a small bone on this one.)
In short: just because one character gets major amnesia doesn’t mean you have to make the reader feel like she also got amnesia and forgot half of the book.
I can only give this book two stars, which really makes me sad, because I wanted so badly to like it and because it really was gripping enough that I read it straight through in a fever of wanting to know what happens next. But if a book refuses to tell you what happened before, what’s happening now or what happens next, the best premise in the world can’t save it. Two stars.