A while back—I’m not sure when exactly—a student asked me why Shakespeare was such a big deal. The student said they didn’t really care for the plays; they wanted to know why their English professors made such a fuss. I told this student that part of the reason is that professors and critics decided that Shakespeare was the epitome of literary greatness in English. (There followed a small tangent/rant about how limited the canon is.) Before anyone strips me of my English major credentials, I followed up by explaining why I love Shakespeare. He expressed such a range of human emotion in the most stirring, humorous, loveliest words. I love Shakespeare because he makes me shout, laugh, and cry. I bring all this up because, at the beginning of The Heavens, by Sandra Newman, Shakespeare doesn’t exist for the main characters.
One of the main characters, Kate, seems to drift through life. She doesn’t have a job or career. She crashes with friends, for the most part. Her relationships with others are remarkably drama-free. Her friction-less existence seems to spring from the fact that this world isn’t quite as real to her as the glimpses of another world that Kate sees in her dreams. In those dreams, Kate sees a country called Albion, ruled by a queen, where Kate is the mistress of a noble. The dreams get longer as time goes on and, eventually, Kate realizes that she is dreaming herself into the life of the sixteenth-century poet, Emilia Lanier—a woman scholars speculate might be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Kate’s plotline is so imaginative that it makes the arc of the other protagonist, Kate’s boyfriend Ben, fade into insignificance for the first part of the book. Sadly, Ben transforms from lover to villain as Kate starts to get lost in her dreams of Elizabethan England.
Kate’s problem with her dreams is not so much that she’s having them, it’s that things are always a little different each time she wakes up in her modern life. The changes might be that the curtains change to blinds. Or the changes might be that the president has another name or that the United States fought other wars or that we haven’t figured out how to leave fossil fuels behind. Kate’s world before she started dreaming seemed a lot like the future the liberals want. It slowly morphs into this world.
By the end of The Heavens, I was left with the question of whether or not the evils of our current world (violence, pollution, anti-science thought, poverty, etc.) are the price we pay for having Shakespeare’s work. As much as I love Shakespeare’s words, I would give them up for a world where no one was hungry or had to worry about being shot at kindergarten or where the clock is urgently ticking towards an unlivable, barren planet. I really enjoyed the brief descriptions of Kate’s original world; I very much wanted Kate to figure out how to reverse the changes she made. The Heavens ended up being a very depressing book for me because Kate can’t seem to stop the changes that her minor interferences appear to have caused.
The Heavens is an interesting thought experiment but, ultimately, it was too demoralizing for me.