A captivating novel about aging fathers and their grown daughters, childhood scars, and rewriting the script with a little help from Shakespeare, from the acclaimed author of My October.
On the brink of forty, Bea Rose has lost her lover, her business, and her bearings. When the opportunity arises to work on a summer production of King Lear to be staged in various parks around Montreal, she takes it, despite her utter lack of theatre experience.
Things get off to a rocky start when Bea meets the artistic director, Artie White, a childhood friend whose presence stirs up painful memories. Then, inadvertently attracting the attentions of the play's aging star, she learns that she must tread carefully among the egos and relationships of the company. At the same time, Bea's father begins behaving erratically, and her younger sister Cara discovers cracks in the foundation of an apparently perfect life.
The sisters do their best to care for their beloved, demanding father, but his deteriorating condition is more than they can handle. Meanwhile, the star of Lear is also faltering amidst the confusions of age, illness, and regret. When a raucous party whirls out of control, the various forces in Bea's life collide, culminating in a violent act that could destroy more than one life. But that act also reveals how lives might be united in new ways.
Tender, vivid, and powerful, Lear's Shadow is a richly satisfying meditation on love's power to bind and to liberate. It's a lyrical reminder that even in the face of grief, life's joy can be embraced.
About the author
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer. After early training as a lawyer, she taught college literature, and creative writing at McGill University. She has also worked extensively as a translator in her native Montreal, winning the Glassco Prize for her translation of Quebec’s first novel, Le chercheur de trésors/The Alchemist. Rothman’s short fiction has appeared in numerous literary periodicals. She has published two story collections, Salad Days and Black Tulips. The Heart Specialist, her first novel, was longlisted for the 2009 ScotiaBank Giller Prize, is a Canadian bestseller, and was released in Italy, Germany, the UK and French Canada. Claire Holden Rothman lives in Montreal with actor Arthur Holden and their two sons.
- Winner, Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature
Excerpt: Lear's Shadow (by (author) Claire Holden Rothman)
The old man knows he should watch the road, but he can’t. His eyes keep drifting to the black churn of cloud overhead. Nightfall is still an hour away, but the sky is so dark he can’t see the white lines on the pavement. He curses, gropes for the headlight switch, pressing buttons and turning knobs to no visible effect. The car plunges through the shadows down the final stretch of Pine Avenue, past the Royal Victoria Hospital and the grimy stone archway of the Neurological Institute. It weaves across lanes as though driven by someone crazy or blind or both.
As the old man rounds the curve onto Park Avenue, brake lights ignite in front of him. These he can see. He slams down hard and stops a foot short of an aging Pontiac. Behind him, another car squeals to a stop. All the way up Park Avenue cars are at a standstill, their taillights blinking in frustration.
The old man kicks open his door. Above him, the sky is as oily and opaque as the asphalt. Wind slaps him, claws at his clothes, whips strands of hair across his scalp. He puts a hand over his eyes to shield them from the swirling grit and fights his way forward. Then he hears it: the beating heart of the chaos, a faint, steady patter of drums. Through the blur of wind and flashing lights he sees them: arms linked, laughing like drunks at a party. They’ve choked the broad city street—they’ve brought him and everyone around him to a halt. And they’re laughing.
The wind knocks him hard into a stopped car. He can see them clearly now. Youngsters, shirtless, their chests decorated with paint. Two girls are half-naked too, directly in his path, wearing bikini tops or maybe their brassieres. He moves closer, grabbing at the sides of vehicles for balance. One of the girls is fleshy, a pink-skinned child. The old man shoves her. He does it out of indignation, but also because she’s the weak link in the chain. She comes unhooked from her companions and staggers, looking up at him with round astonished eyes. A boy shouts. A second boy spits at him, then grabs his arm and shakes it so hard his vision tunnels.
He breaks free and continues through the bodies, through the shoves and shouts and gusts of wind, until something makes him look up. Above him, a winged black enormity is etched against the sky’s lesser blackness. He freezes. Then he realizes it’s the angel—his angel—gazing down benignly, pointing the
The sky lights up making the angel gleam. A second flash comes and the old man sees again the thing that he thought was a hallucination. A rope is tied around the angel’s neck; someone is hanging from it.
The sky blazes and goes dark, blazes and goes dark: God playing idly with a light switch. At the end of the rope is a girl, a thick tail of hair swinging behind her like a demented metronome. Her feet brace against the angel’s loins while one of her arms sweeps up and down, as if half of her were trying to fly.
Thunder cracks followed by shrieks. A drop of water hits the old man’s forehead, then another. An instant later the sky opens, obliterating the girl and scattering the crowd. He tries to run but his limbs are useless, as in a nightmare. He collapses, first onto one knee, then onto his shoulder. For one electric moment as the pain sparks through him, his body fuses with the storm. The old man rolls onto his back. The last thing he sees, dimly, before closing his eyes, is a stricken angel in a drowned sky.
Beatrice Rose stood in the kitchen of her apartment on Sainte-Famille Street, staring at the string of Christmas lights looping off her shelves. It was the end of May and the temperature was brutal, inside and out. Montreal was in the grip of the year’s first heat wave. She glanced through the window at the darkening sky and back at her brave little out-of-season lights.
It was the day of her mother’s birth: Deirdre McMaster Rose would have turned sixty-five. A pain flared in Bea’s chest. Not a pain exactly, more a familiar squeezing, strong enough to block her breath. She knew it wasn’t a physical phenomenon. It wasn’t asthma, though years ago a pediatrician had concluded that it was and prescribed a puffer. And it wasn’t her heart. That poor, flapping organ would survive, she knew, after decades of living with this squeezing. She’d visited her mother’s grave at the Mount Royal Cemetery that morning. The grass around it had been lush, undamaged as yet by the sun. The first flies of the season had circled her lazily. She’d left a rose on the headstone instead of a rock.
Her mother had been dead now for more years than she’d been alive. She was killed in a car crash at the age of thirty-two. Bea’s father, Sol, was at the wheel. He never spoke of it. After the car overturned at the intersection of Park Avenue and Pine, he’d climbed out with bruises and a graze on his left cheek where his beard hairs would never grow again. Her mother hadn’t been so lucky.
The kettle chirped tentatively then opened into a full-throated wail. Bea took it off the heat and made herself a herbal tea: calming nettles. The bright orange stove coil faded to black. Her tension wasn’t due entirely to the anniversary. There was a more pressing cause. She’d been invited to a party.
She glanced at the kitchen clock, a whimsical thing she and Jean-Christian had picked up at the dollar store, fluffy clouds floating in a blue sky, and took a sip that scalded her tongue. The evening was too hot for tea. Her body was a furnace. She put the cup in the sink, taking care not to spill its contents. She was in her party wear, a pink kameez, the most beautiful thing she owned, bought years ago in northern India. The neckline, low by Indian standards, was embroidered with shimmering threads of gold. She knew it looked good, even if the body it adorned was no longer young.
It was time to leave. She walked down the hall without turning on the lights. The apartment was typical of the Plateau Mont-Royal, long and narrow, with windows at either end, its middle cave-dark. Bea patted the wall at the bathroom doorway to find the light switch. Her face appeared in the mirror, lit up out of the darkness.
Jean-Christian had come in February for his belongings. Among the items he’d left with was the rice-paper globe that had once softened the bathroom light and made intriguing shadows. A naked bulb remained, dangling dejectedly from the ceiling. Also gone was the shower curtain with its bright motif of tropical fish. She’d been at work when he dropped by. He knew her schedule. It was easy to find on the studio website, but he knew it without checking: her schedule had been his. For seven years they’d managed Om Sweet Om together, offering yoga classes and workshops and running a popular teacher-training program. They were well known. Their studio had been one of the best. Not as big as the places downtown, perhaps, but reputable, respected. Even her father was impressed.
The light cast visible lines in the face in the bathroom mirror, especially around the eyes, from which they fanned like cracks in a windshield. Bea would turn forty this summer. No man, no money and a business on the point of collapse. She had spent the winter adrift.
She should have gone for counselling. That was what her sister, Cara, said. But Bea didn’t have the money or, frankly, the desire for therapy. She didn’t need a psychologist to tell her what was wrong. The breakup had hit her hard. Jean-Christian had given her no warning. There had been a third party; she never did find out who. Behind that pain was the deeper anguish of her mother, the old trauma, the ghost in the shadows. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to see where the trouble lay. She would survive this loss, just as she’d survived the one in her childhood. She still had some fight left.
In any case, she couldn’t waste energy thinking about her emotional state. Other matters required attention, like her failing yoga studio. Without Jean-Christian, Om Sweet Om was no longer viable. The clients were mostly women, whom Jean-Christian had held, literally, in the palms of his hands—large, capable hands with which he’d adjusted people’s postures while reciting Persian poetry. The mix was devastating. He wasn’t young anymore either, a full decade older than Bea, but no one ever guessed. Whereas Bea was short and wiry like her father, Jean-Christian was six three, with a dancer’s build and hazel eyes so piercing they made you weak-kneed. Bea used to think that was a figure of speech. But at the first sight of Jean-Christian, she’d felt it. And she’d seen other competent, sane women turn red and confused when he looked their way. Within three months of his departure a third of her clients had left, and Om Sweet Om had begun to lose money.
Bea squared her shoulders and breathed. A deep breath, filling her belly. Whatever she’d once shared with Jean-Christian Dubois was over. It was time to move on.
SHORTLISTED for the 2020 Jacob Isaac Segal Award
WINNER of the 2019 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature in Fiction
Praise for Lear's Shadow:
“'Love like a shadow flies…,' wrote Shakespeare, and this is a story of love in its shifting shades. Desire, duty, and the fellowship of theatre, rendered in Rothman’s tender, clear-eyed prose.”
—Sean Michaels, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Us Conductors
“A delicately wrought, heartfelt novel about the injuries we carry in mind and body, and the power of art to heal us all."
—Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody Has Everything
“Lear’s Shadow exudes warmth—for Montreal and its theatre scene brought to vibrant life on the page.”
—Joan Thomas, author of The Opening Sky
“Rich in subplots, the ... story stars a vast crew of characters that evolve and intersect in surprising ways. Reading Lear’s Shadow is like holding a backstage pass to these characters’ lives.”
—Montreal Review of Books
“Rothman makes great use of the ubiquitous Montreal summer storms to riff off the action of the play and to engage in an examination of identity.”
—Quill and Quire
“A deft balancing of timeless, classically weighted themes with contemporary relevance and page-turning instincts.”
“Rothman’s an accomplished writer, and Lear’s Shadow reflects that…Lear’s Shadow is a novel with a play-like feel to it that manages to toy with wisdom and folly, love and loss. It is an ambitious work which hits its mark.”
—Winnipeg Free Press