Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

Found Via: Publisher's Weekly 1/25

Y'know, for someone that doesn't like Shakespeare all that much, I end up reading a lot of books where he or his work features prominently. I think it's because it's about the only way I get to read stories about theater - since Shakespeare's all public domain, the author can quote at liberty and the stories are well enough known that you don't have to summarize the story. Also, I do happen to very much like A Midsummer Night's Dream, so even though the main character here is named for a very different play, Midsummer plays a prominent role.

Hamlet wants nothing more than to be normal - which is really hard to do when your parents are Shakespeare scholars who insist on dressing and speaking in Elizabethan style and her younger sister is such a super genius that at the tender age of 7 she'll be starting 8th grade with Hamlet. And then, of course, there's that name. At least younger sister Desdemona ended up with something feminine.

So Hamlet's life is tough enough before it's announced that Shakespeare will be the focus of an interdisciplinary study in history and English this year. In history they'll construct replicas of the Globe theatre (conveniently, one of her dad's hobbies) and in English they'll be performing scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, where it's discovered that Hamlet is a superb Shakespearean performer and is assigned the role of Puck against her will.

Adding to Hamlet's horror are her two nemeses who quickly befriend Desdemona, who can't see that the older girls are just using her for her brain. Hamlet's crush hardly seems to know she exists, and her best male friend is apparently harboring a major crush on her, which is weird. And somebody keeps leaving origami pigs in her locker, which is weirder. Eighth grade is definitely turning out to be a total tragedy.

At first I was a little put off by just how weird Hamlet's life can be sometimes. I've had some college professors that were hugely into their subjects, but nobody was dressing up in period garb and then showing up at their daughters' school unannounced. But then I decided to read this as an all-out farce, and everything fits much better.

The parental obsession with Shakespeare aside, I did like Hamlet's family relationships, even though they're often dysfunctional. Hamlet often feels like she's ignored and standing in the shadow of her genius little sister. Her parents ask Hamlet to make sacrifices to accomodate Desi's schedule, and when things get broken at home it's automatically assumed that Hamlet (or one of her friends) must have done it, because Desi's too perfect. Lots of siblings will be able to relate to that!

The romance is well handled as well. Hamlet has a major crush, but that doesn't overshadow the rest of her life. The secret admirer is fun, and the best friend crush is horrendously and delightfully awkward.
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