Love in Idleness by Amanda Craig
This week has seen the summer solstice on the 21st, and Midsummer’s Day on the 24th, so what better time to read a modern take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Love-in-idleness’ is the name of the flower that Oberon gets Puck to find to squeeze its love potion juice onto the eyes of the lovers, ensuring that they will fall in love with the first person they see when they wake, causing much mischief. Craig based her fifth book, published back in 2003, around a novel take on the play.
Theseus Theo Noble is a hotshot American lawyer living and working in England with his British wife Hippolyta Polly and they have booked a big villa in Tuscany for a fortnight to which they’ve invited family and friends. There’s Theo’s patrician battleaxe of a mother, Betty; brother Daniel and his bag and shoe designer girlfriend Helena Ellen; Polly’s old friend Hermia Hemani known as Meenu, an Indian doctor, Daniel’s friend the louche Ivo Sponge (who crops up in several of Craig’s novels), they’ll be joined much later by Polly’s friend Guy – a celebrity gardener who has tufty ears. Then there are the children: Theo and Polly’s pair – (Ti)Tania and Robin Goodfellow/Puck Robbie and Hemani’s son Oberon Auberon, known as Bron – who is also an Indian boy.
I immediately loved Craig’s nods to Shakespeare with the names, especially casting the children as the fairies. I did slightly wonder why she didn’t go the full hog with Daniel and Ivo, who are effectively Demetrius and Lysander (although not necessarily always that way round), and the jolly Guy is left to represent the Rude Mechanicals. The play is set in Athens, but Craig moves her action to Tuscany, near the hilltop town of Cortona.
We spend the first half of the book getting to know the cast of characters, although Theo has man-flu and stays in bed, leaving Polly to do everything – which she takes on as the mother hen she is, getting food on the table at regular hours so the kids still have some sort of routine. Hemani and Ellen lounge by the pool, Ivo looks on with not a little lust. Daniel frets, feeling second-class compared with his successful older brother, Betty (whom I envisaged as Sian Phillips in Lydia mode) despairs at her son not managing to pop the question to Ellen. The children run wild, Robbie adores Bron and ignores Tania who stamps her foot. You get the picture?
Craig takes her time brewing things up, exposing the cracks in the various relationships which were already strained before things really hot up in the last third of the novel, and her reworking of Shakespeare’s plot takes over; I won’t say any more about how it works out. As a result though, the first half of the novel is a little slow, and then it is a rush to the finish. The characters we get to know the best are long-suffering Polly (who will pop up in another novel – the re-using characters being part of Craig’s signature style), and Ivo – who despite being a terrible flirt, and a literal sponge on his friend Daniel – is rather good company. Ivo may be a sponge, but Hemani as a junior doctor is not yet rich like all the others, and as an Indian and single mother, seems to be the character with all the issues. I did wish Guy had joined the party sooner in the novel for he was interesting and different to the others.
That said, I read this novel, happily imagining the Tuscan countryside, and remembering the villa in Tuscany where Kenneth Branagh filmed his Much Ado About Nothing (left), which is actually set in Messina, Sicily. Less satirical than some of Craig’s other novels, Love in Idleness was still good midsummer reading, particularly as I was working out how the Shakespeare sub-plot would pan out. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy of the 1st edition hardback, no less! It’s been on my shelves since 2003. 344 pages.
BUY in paperback at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)