Maggie O'Farrell

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O'Farrell, Maggie

Last Updated: Oct-19-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


The underlying premise of this engrossing book is the well documented historical fact that William Shakespeare had a young son who died at age 11, relatively early in his father’s theatrical career. The son, named Hamnet, was one of twins born to William and Agnes Hathaway (O’Farrell refers to her as Agnes rather than Ann based on some public records) in 1585. The cause of death is unknown, but O’Farrell imagines that he fell victim to the plague. She weaves an electric narrative that begins with Shakespeare as an educated young man who is a teacher and private tutor to children in Stratford-on-Avon. His relationship with his glove maker father who has fallen on hard times is at a near break point. In the past, Shakespeare’s father had been an important town official but because of a mixture of misguided business deals and bad behaviors, he has become an object of public scorn. His rage at this reversal of fortune is directed at his bookish son. But then, Shakespeare meets Agnes Hathaway. She is 8 years older than William but entrances him with her unconventional personality and her exotic skillset including bee keeping and an uncanny ability to heal people with herbal remedies. They marry and have their first child 6 months later to be followed in short order by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Agnes recognizes William’s unique potential and supports his choice to leave his family and head off to London to make his name in the theater world. Shakespeare rarely returns home to Stratford, and we only learn of his growing success indirectly. Agnes is forced to raise her children as a single parent and has to deal with her overwhelming grief when Hamnet dies. As she mourns the loss of her son, she is overcome with doubt about the fidelity of her absent husband, and her faith in their marriage is threatened. Ultimately, Agnes is given a playbill featuring the production of a new play written by her husband and she sets off on a trip to London to confront him on his own turf. She arrives uninvited at the Globe Theater in time to witness a performance of the play in which her husband has been able to channel his own grief at the loss of his son into one of the enduring literary works in the Western canon.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


Maggie O’Farrell describes the book in a scene involving a casual conversation she has with her mother over tea.

As she lifts the pot to the table, she asks me what I’m working on at the moment, and, as I swallow my water, I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near death experiences. She is silent for a moment, readjusting cosy, milk jug, cup handles. ‘Is it your life?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, a touch nervously. I have no idea how she’ll feel about this. ‘It’s not…it’s just…snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.’ (pp. 142-143)
This conversation is the only place in the book where O’Farrell describes her intentions in writing it. But, what O’Farrell describes to her mother is exactly what the book is, a memoir comprising seventeen “brushes with death,” as she calls these moments. There is no prologue, there are no interludes, there is no coda, just the seventeen stories.

Few people will experience any one of these events, and perhaps only O’Farrell has experienced all of the events she tells us about. She categorizes them based on the anatomy involved in a particular brush with death. For example, some of the chapter names are: “Lungs” (three times), “Neck” (twice), “Abdomen,” “Intestines,” “Cerebellum,” “Circulatory System,” “Whole Body.” The one exception is the chapter, “Daughter.”

Other ways of categorizing the near-death experiences O’Farrell covers could be based on whether they threatened O’Farrell herself or any of her children, whether they were the result of bad luck (e.g., illness) or bad judgment (e.g., near drowning), or whether the threat originated outside the body (e.g., accident) or within the body (e.g., illness, medical procedures). The brushes with death from outside the body involved violence (twice), decapitation (twice), drowning (three times), a plunging commercial airliner, and a knife throwing exhibition. From within her body, close calls involved encephalitis as a child, amoebic dysentery while traveling in a developing country, a Cesarean section gone awry, and a few missed miscarriages (i.e., when fetus dies but no signs or symptoms manifest and surgical procedures become necessary). A daughter was born with severe allergic conditions that caused the child misery pretty much all the time interspersed with episodes of life-threatening reactions. O’Farrell’s son was almost lost in one of her near drownings.

O’Farrell leaves it to the epigraph she placed at the beginning of the book to stitch together how these stories collectively reveal the possibility of the human spirit to get us through the most serious and persistent challenges to our being. For this epigraph, she takes a line from Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

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