Hamnet – April CC Book Club Selection

Happy Easter to all who are celebrating the day! :hatching_chick:

@jerseysouthmomchess, I hope you get a chance to read the book; please share your thoughts if you do!

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I absolutely loved this book! I finally got a print copy, but I listened to most of it, and the audio version is perfectly paced and wonderful.

There were so many sensitive depictions of grief that, like @CBBBlinker, I sometimes I had to just stop and sit with them for a bit. A few:

Agnes while Hamnet is searching for help–her future regret:

Later, and for the rest of her life, she will think that if she had left then and there…if she had heeded her abrupt, nameless unease, she might have changed what happened next.

Agnes wanting to stay alone with Hamnet’s body, needing help but unable to accept it, going back and forth between “what-ifs” and the finality of his death.

Agnes again, at the graveyard, bereft because she missed the moment of her son’s casket being lowered. Then refusing to move from the gate afterward:

she entered this place with three children and she leaves it with two

Also Judith, creating a private space where she and Hamnet used to play, where she can be alone and remember him. And her question about having no term for a surviving twin, as if her grief is not recognized; just heartbreaking.

And the community of grief–Eliza seeing Agnes in her bed and remembering her sister, and the rush of feeling when Agnes recognizes her pain. And Mary, forgetting differences to help Agnes through her loss, because she’s been there, too.

I read When Breath Becomes Air after my husband died, but I would have been interested to know what he thought of it. Like yours, @ignatius, my husband also didn’t share a lot about what he was going through at the end.

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That was such a touching passage. And I liked the fact that Agnes doesn’t give a wise, all-knowing answer, because in reality, we are rarely able to do that. When Judith asks her, “What is the word for what I am?”, Agnes can only absorb her daughter’s pain and respond, “I don’t know.”

“What is the word for what I am?” is something Agnes is going through as well. Part of grief is about identity.

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her; she had her children, she had her husband, she had her home. She was able to peer into people and see what would befall them. She knew how to help them. Her feet moved over the earth with confidence and grace.

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. She is someone who weeps if she cannot find a shoe or overboils the soup or trips over a pot. Small things undo her. Nothing is certain anymore.

Sometimes, I will scribble down a line I’ve read in a book or article. Last year, after my mom passed, I wrote down this sentence (from a piece by journalist Ryan Prior): “A friend once told me that when someone we know dies, we’re also mourning the death of the part of ourselves that only they knew.”

I have a friend who told me after her father died, “He was the one person on this earth in whose eyes I could do no wrong.” She said it saddened her to know that that version of herself no longer existed.

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@Mary13 :

Sometimes, I will scribble down a line I’ve read in a book or article. Last year, after my mom passed, I wrote down this sentence (from a piece by journalist Ryan Prior): “A friend once told me that when someone we know dies, we’re also mourning the death of the part of ourselves that only they knew.”

This is SO true. For Agnes, for Judith, for any of us who have lost someone close to us. The loss, others see and understand. But the little reminders of shared experience that lurk everywhere in places, events, music–those are the things that remind us how we’ve changed, every day, and nobody else notices.

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I agree! @Mary13 and @buenavista , you both expressed this perfectly!

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  1. What did you think of the relationship between Agnes her husband? Were they a good match? How does the novel’s portrayal of this marriage differ from others you have seen?

I thought they were an excellent match. Agnes and her husband allow each other to be exactly the person that they are, or are striving to be, without making demands based on selfishness or convention.

Neither spouse is accepted by the in-laws. Mary finds Agnes intractable; John treats her “as a simpleton, a rural idiot;” Bartholomew views Agnes’ husband as a weak “pasty-faced scholar.” Even so, Agnes and her husband don’t let such criticism affect the loving (and unusual) relationship they have with each other.

I just want to give a shout-out here to Bartholomew. He was a good man. I liked his relationship with Agnes. They had a bond that was close to the “twinship” of Hamnet and Judith – being able to read each other with only a look, always supportive. Bartholomew was a rock for Agnes, the role that her husband was never really capable of assuming.

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I’m glad you mentioned Bartholomew. He turned out to be a favorite character for all the reasons you mention.

I just requested Hamnet from the library, which doesn’t make much sense. After all, I already own it (Kindle) and am over halfway through with it. Still, I prefer hard copy to Kindle and, for some unknown reason, I need to read Hamnet the hard-copy way. It may have to do with the way O’Farrell writes - her back and forth in time. I keep wanting to flip back and reread something. I have a harder time doing that on my Kindle and I can’t exactly bookmark something I don’t yet know I want to reread. It could also be that life for me at the moment has me reading in snatches here and there and I’ve decided that’s not the best way to read Hamnet. Weird.

My next-door neighbor lost her oldest son at age three. She struggled with the innocent question “Do you have children?” She answered that she had had one - recently deceased. Later - with two more young boys - she still answered “three” with an explanation about her oldest. Eventually “two boys” became the expedient answer. Still, that first time she said “two” she came home and cried off and on all day. She told me it felt like a betrayal of the one she had lost not to acknowledge his time and import in her life.

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FINALLY got my copy from the library. I’ll be here to join you all in a few days.

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I really loved the scene where Hamnet lies down next to his sister and wills the universe to have them trade places. We know he’s sick already, but it had this magical realist feel to it. I really like the way many parts of the novel dance along that edge.

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Makes perfect sense to me! My ideal for bookclub (though seldom achieved) is to have both a hardcover and Kindle version: the former for flipping back and forth to quickly skim a chapter, and also for the cover (I love covers); the latter to search for a specific sentence or description that I remember reading, but can’t quite place when. The Kindle can also be invaluable when the hard copy has a minuscule font. I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

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I’m another who loves covers. I’ve bought books for their covers alone.

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That was another beautifully written passage.

He breathes in. He breathes out. He turns his head and breathes into the whorls of her ear; he breathes in his strength, his health, his all. You will stay, is what he whispers, and I will go.

From a less poetic, more practical standpoint, I also liked how Susanna and Judith assume their mother’s duties while she grieves. It’s another example of switching places, easing the way for a loved one.

Susanna is the one to shred the marigold petals into vinegar, to mash and add honey. She is the one to ensure the mixture is shaken every day.

Judith begins to lift the window latch when people knock. She speaks with the person outside, standing on tiptoe to hear them.

Agnes is dimly aware of the shift in roles, hearing her daughter’s voices “like bright birds, taking wing, swooping around the room and out into the skies.”

How is it these children, these young women came from her? What relation do they bear to the small beings she once nursed and dandled and washed?

That felt very true to to me; I’ve had my own daughters step forward and take over during hard times and it’s both comforting and disconcerting.

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I still don’t have my copy of Hamnet from the library, so I’m studiously NOT looking at your comments. But I wanted to peek in here and let book club members know there’s a lovely essay in the New York Times today by Min Jin Lee about her immigrant background and how reading has shaped her life. (Those who’ve been around a little while will remember Pachinko.)

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Thanks for the article, it was lovely. I was struck that you can be a voracious reader as a child and have almost no overlap in what you read or what appealed to you!

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So I bought kindle version of Hamnet, a safe purchase after reading all these posts.

Sidebar ——
Also, wanted to mention pBs, had a special about Agatha Christie England, many may enjoy finding

Ok, back to regular scheduled discussion - Hamnet :hibiscus:

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Thanks for the Min Jin Lee article, @jollymama! Love this:

In literature, I’ve never been without consolation. Books have found me at every stage of my life, reminding me that if a character could change, so could I, and in turn, the story would pave another path for me.

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  1. In this novel, Shakespeare’s family seems to have little interest or understanding about his theatrical career and his writing. Discuss the significance of this choice.

I couldn’t decide whether or not that was realistic. It’s not just his family – the whole town seems relatively clueless as regards the growing fame of Agnes’ husband. I understand concealing his wealth; it seems to be a deliberate move on his part in order to surprise Agnes and to safeguard his cash (“Don’t tell my father,” he says to her after revealing that he has a lot of money).

However, in terms of his writing…I don’t get it. This seems to be the only way that Agnes is not attentive to the inner workings of her husband. She knows he is gifted, so she lets him go; yet she never seeks details on the extraordinary way in which those gifts are being utilized. Considering how prolific he was, and how much he loved his family, it seems to me it would have been natural for him to tell entertaining tales of the theatre to his children, re-enact scenes from his plays, discuss new ideas, etc. Instead, he chooses to keep his London life entirely separate from his Stratford one (a decision that also explains why he wrote so few letters home). Why did he feel this was necessary?

As for the neighbors, I suppose their disinterest could stem from the theory that “a prophet has no honour in his own country.” Still, you’d think he’d be at least a minor celebrity, with regular talk about whatever play was being performed in London – but maybe the difficulty of disseminating news, plus literacy issues, made that impossible.

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You may have noticed this epigraph at the beginning of Hamnet:

Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. - Steven Greenblatt, “The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet,” New York Review of Books (October 21, 2004)

If you subscribe to the New York Review of Books, you can access the article, although truthfully, the title is a bit of a misnomer, as I found it to be more about Shakespeare perfecting his craft than about Hamnet.

However, here’s an excerpt relevant to our discussion:

In King John, probably written in 1596 just after the boy was laid to rest, Shakespeare depicted a mother so frantic at the loss of her son that she is driven to thoughts of suicide. Observing her, a clerical bystander remarks that she is mad, but she insists that she is perfectly sane: “I am not mad; I would to God I were!” Reason, she says, and not madness, has put the thoughts of suicide in her head, for it is her reason that tenaciously keeps hold of the image of her child. When she is accused of perversely insisting on her grief, she replies with an eloquent simplicity that breaks free from the tangled plot:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

(III.4.93–97)

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Here’s another excerpt – not specifically about Hamnet, but fascinating:

Hamlet marks a sufficient break in Shakespeare’s career as to suggest some more personal cause for his daring transformation both of his sources and of his whole way of writing. A simple index of this transformation is the astonishing rush of new words, words that he had never used before in some twenty-one plays and in two long poems. There are, scholars have calculated, more than six hundred of these words, many of them not only new to Shakespeare but also—compulsive, fanged, besmirch, intruding, overgrowth, pander, outbreak, unfledged, unimproved, unnerved, unpolluted, unweeded, to name only a few—new to the written record of the English language. Something must have been at work in Shakespeare, something powerful enough to call forth this linguistic explosion. As audiences and readers have long instinctively understood, passionate grief, provoked by the death of a loved one, lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

How does a person either learn or create 600 new words for a single work?!

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I finally finished the book, so here I am. I appreciate all your comments. Really, the only thing I have to add is that I found it fascinating when Agnes described riding her horse into the City of London, and how filthy it was. It reminded me of the part in The Weight of Ink when Ester leaves the City of London for the first time and is struck by how verdant and clean everything was.

Question: We know that Hamnet is fiction, but about Shakespeare. If we didn’t know it was about Shakespeare, what do you think we would think about it? Would we still like it so much, or would it have lost something?

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