Review: The World’s a Stage by Gail Sterling

After his younger sister is killed in a tragic accident, William Palmer’s family flees their quiet Warwickshire village for the bustling metropolis of Elizabethan London. The deaths of his parents and the marriage of his remaining sister soon separate William from his family. Taken on by a company of actors in an era where women are forbidden onstage, William makes a good living playing the parts of young girls and beautiful maidens.

As he gets older, William finds himself growing out of the female stage parts, even as he develops a less than strictly professional interest in his co-star, Jack Hawkins. The course of true love never did run smooth, and William soon finds himself torn between Jack, the return of an elder sister who needs his help, and the mysterious and intriguing son of the company’s patron, Lord Evering.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Gail Sterling’s novel is a pretty short one, and I read it in its entirety in one evening. It’s a wonderfully quick read, and I’m glad that Sterling didn’t opt for too-authentic language, choosing instead clear, functional prose. The benefit is a fast, uninterrupted flow, though the downside is that there are parts here and there that sound too modern, with certain words and turns of phrases that are contemporary American.

On the whole, I enjoyed the novel. Written in first person, we get a pretty fascinating glimpse of Shakespeare’s London through Will’s eyes. The highlight to me, though, is the way the theatrical scene is explored. Behind the scenes, we get to see how actors rehearse, get fitted for their costumes, are received by the audience (their seating arrangements being nicely described according to social class), and especially, how they live outside the stage. It’s a miserable existence for them, with squalor, hunger, tattered dress, and exhaustion a daily reality. That Will’s company of actors – despite their diverging personalities – remain close to each other is testament to their shared hardships, dreams, and love of their art.

The historical details are there – London’s filth and stench, the variety of people attending each production, the taverns, the decrepit inns, etc. I’m also glad that Sterling doesn’t shy away from the physical conditions of the people back then. One scene has Will helping a drunk and passed out actor:

Feeling generous, I eased off his boots, and was immediately assaulted by a smell so foul, it caused the bile to rise to my throat. Gagging, I put a hand to my mouth and escaped the room, closing the door behind me.

I can only imagine, poor kid. Will’s situation as a young boy who’s growing out of his role (he’s sixteen in the novel) as well as the fit of his costumes is another highlight of the novel. It serves as a parallel to Will’s non-theatrical coming-of-age, in which he has to learn to reconcile his past with his present as well as to let it go and move on with his life.

There are a few things that keep me from giving this book higher marks, however. Yes, the language is accessible, and the historical details are well-researched. Yes, we see things unfold through the eyes of the principal player. That said, there’s a surprising degree of detachment in the novel, in that despite the period details, I never felt truly engaged with Elizabethan London. I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that there’s a lot of telling in the book and not enough showing. We’re told that London looks like this and smells like that, but none of our senses is engaged because we don’t really get much more than those references. The novel, in fact, almost gives the impression that we’re watching a play.

As with Will himself and most of the other characters, there’s a distance in the way they interact with each other. It’s also because there’s hardly any feeling evoked. Even though the opportunities are there, there are no moments of slowing down, of savoring a scene or of reflecting on something – anything – that would give us some much-needed glimpse of Will’s personality beyond what’s on the surface. Just like the scene descriptions, what goes on with the characters is told and not shown, with Will doing so in a pretty dry, matter-of-fact way.

Now to some extent that works with the narrative, but considering Will’s backstory as well as his relationship with the other characters, I was hoping for something more than simply quick references.

The most multi-faceted character in the book, in fact, is Anne, Will’s older sister. She’s a tragic figure, and the way her story unfolds is almost antithetical to everyone else’s. She brings out feelings of pity not just through her physical descriptions and backstory but also the little things she does, with her sewing skills completing a very poignant picture of her as a woman with so many dreams shattered. I find myself more attuned to Anne compared to Will from the moment she reappears in her brother’s life.

The love triangle that’s referred to in the back cover blurb is hardly there. In fact, that’s my main complaint. Because it was mentioned, I expected it to be one of the driving forces of Will’s story. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The novel focuses much more on the goings on in the theatre as well as the relationship between Anne and Will; Jack as well as Will’s feelings for him, however, are very sketchy at best, and their intimate moments are touched on dismissively. I wasn’t convinced that Will was in love, let alone that he lost his virginity, except for the fact that he kept grinning the following day. Lord Edwin is even sketchier in terms of romantic developments. He doesn’t appear till around halfway through the novel, and subsequent appearances are few and far between, so much so that he feels almost spectral. When he interacts with Will, they’re more like curious strangers than two people who’re finding each other attractive. Will hardly has any convincing reasons for falling in love with him, with the ending feeling so rushed and somewhat forced that I finished the book feeling more dissatisfied with the romance than anything.

There are a few formatting errors that I found throughout the book – excessive quotation marks and missing quotation marks (both of which made some passages confusing to read), a double-space in between two paragraphs, and a sentence that breaks in two, with one half on one line and the other half in the next line. Those things would’ve been easily corrected during the print galley edits.

For all those, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book from Sterling. She shows a good grasp of history, and the book has a number of witty moments as well that made me grin. If this book is her first effort, I think it would be a treat watching her talent blossom with future titles.

Buy the book: Print or E-book

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