Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle George
Publish Date: September 19, 2017
Published by: Greenwillow Books
Genre: YA Historical Fiction/Retelling
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)
**I received this as an egalley from the publisher through Edelweiss in return for an honest review.**
Six teenagers’ lives intertwine during one thrilling summer full of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals in this sparkling retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
After she gets kicked out of boarding school, seventeen-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle’s estate on Long Island. But Hey Nonny Nonny is more than just a rundown old mansion. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, runs a struggling speakeasy out of the basement—one that might not survive the summer. Along with Prince, a poor young man determined to prove his worth; his brother John, a dark and dangerous agent of the local mob; Benedick, a handsome trust-fund kid trying to become a writer; and Maggie, a beautiful and talented singer; Beatrice and Hero throw all their efforts into planning a massive party to save the speakeasy. Despite all their worries, the summer is beautiful, love is in the air, and Beatrice and Benedick are caught up in a romantic battle of wits that their friends might be quietly orchestrating in the background.
As soon as I saw the words “Much Ado About Nothing”, “1920’s” and “retelling”, I knew I had to read this book. (Also, that cover is drop-dead gorgeous and immediately grabbed my eye). I absolutely love love love Much Ado About Nothing , and of course, the 1920s is a spectacular time to read about, especially if done well. This one sang to me because it is an enemies-to-lovers romance and a retelling of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. And it was phenomenal.
The story immediately dives in, introducing the characters one by one and setting the scene and situation. There’s humor and wit, speakeasies and bootlegging, the Italian mob and of course, romance. It moves at a decent pace, with chapters that alternate mostly between Beatrice and Benedick’s perspectives, with a few of Maggie’s in between (I’m not going to lie, I wouldn’t have minded a few from the other main characters here and there as well). The writing and dialogue was reminiscent of the time period and the wit easily had me laughing out loud at times. I will say there were a few lines here or there that threw me a little in terms of understanding what was trying to be said (I don’t know if it was a subtext clue I missed out on or something) but didn’t really affect the overall plot, thankfully. The romance is a beautiful slow-burn, the speakeasy and rumrunning storyline made for some great intrigue, and the whole thing just had me captivated from the start.
The characters’ growth is definitely the driving force behind the whole story. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that George took some creative liberties and changed some of the relationships from the original play, but in such a way that made sense to the characters as she wrote them, and even had me looking back at how I first perceived them in Much Ado and reconsidering my original perspective. I think the most interesting change was in John, who, in Much Ado, was just downright evil, but in this book shows a much deeper and caring side to him, and a strong reason for his actions that hinder his brother, Pedro (Prince). I also really liked how she made Margaret (Maggie) a much more prominent character throughout the story – she was a character who, in the original play, really took me by surprise and had me intrigued by her own wit and humor, and so to see her put in a stronger role was wonderful indeed.
Of course, though, this book is nothing without its two leads, Beatrice and Benedick. Where in Much Ado it was definitely much more of an ensemble piece, these two take the sure lead in the book as they go from bantering each other with witty remarks and harsh truths, to slowly but surely falling in love with each other (with the helpful nudge from Hero and co.) I loved how George characterized each of them, with Benedick being a wistful writer born into wealth with a strict father but longing for freedom to do as he chooses and Beatrice working her way determinedly from poverty to becoming a doctor despite society’s outlook on women at the time. It really gave them each a certain depth and history that brought their characters to life on the page, and their relationship growth all the more interesting. I also loved how there were sparks growing between them long before Hero and co tried to trick them into falling for each other – it just made everything all the much more believable and wonderful to read.
Overall this book was just fun and romantic, full of wit and humor, with characters that grab you by the heart and make you fall in love with them, warts and all. A definite recommendation for anyone who likes a good enemies-to-lovers romance, historical fiction set in the 1920s, or Shakespeare retellings that really do it well.