In this debut novel, J.R. Thorp tells the story of King Lear's wife, who was absent from Shakespeare's play. Here the queen has been exiled to a nunnery, and the reader finds her upon learning of the death of her husband and daughters. Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers.
In luscious prose, Thorp explores the nameless queen’s untold story, one that—in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare’s original—is rife with cruelty, betrayal and passion ... Learwife is gorgeously written, its language ornate and heady ... Thorp carefully embeds clues to Queen’s banishment within her alarming memories of her children ... Thorp doesn’t abandon the theme of greed in Shakespeare’s play, but she does flesh it out to reveal how desperate the women in King Lear would have been for any scrap of agency in their lives. The novel’s scenes with Queen and her daughters are its most affecting; I wish Thorp had given us more ... Though Thorp ratchets up the tension three-quarters of the way through, readers would have been better served if she had inserted more suspense among the stunning early descriptions of life at the abbey. Thorp applies subtle pressure when what the story needed, at times, was a firm shove. But the novel’s crest and denouement are artful and moving ... it’s a beautiful triumph nonetheless.
Learwife is an original and highly accomplished debut ... One of the joys of this book is seeing characters such as Goneril and Regan through a new lens ... Thorp is a stylish writer, who blends old and new worlds in prose that is elegant, rhythmic and innovative ... The queen is a complex character, on the one hand deserving of sympathy, on the other brilliantly defiant about her brutal mothering style ... Occasionally the harking to the past feels repetitive, but for the most part it is well balanced with present action at the abbey. Metatextual references add depth...and the book is rich with period detail, from a tunic with Flemish thickness, to Kent’s five rules for succeeding in court.
Learwife is written in an understandable modern style, but it takes place in an undefined historical period where convents and Christianity coexist with pre-Christian belief systems, and this combination of modern style (and, to some extent, a modern sense of the main character’s inner life) has its drawbacks—a reader who would like to picture the larger society and locate where the novel is taking place is out of luck ... As with many stream-of-consciousness novels, Thorp has to walk the thin line between a character who reveals her feelings and thoughts constantly, thereby seeming rather self-obsessed and off-putting, and showing what the character sees around her and what the larger picture is. Since the queen is confined and doesn’t understand the larger picture, her detailed narrative can be a little slow—reading Learwife is a little like reading Ulysses—you either get used to it or you don’t. One thing the author is good at, but is also a challenge for the reader, is exploring how the queen’s own sanity is fading ... Learwife doesn’t work perfectly, but what debut novel does? Thorpe places her bet on psychological complexity that evolves into more psychological complexity as the story unfolds. You may have to read it twice before you take it in, but I believe it is worth it.