IS THE Literary Review trying to test me? A year or so ago I was sent a novel to review which was a modern-day reworking of The Odyssey, set in Notting Hill. About three quarters of the way through it finally sank in that the hero was an explorer, his wife, who stayed waiting at home, was called Penny. .. As my classical education isn’t all it might be, this was a huge relief. I’d got the joke, as it were. I felt the same profound thankfulness when the penny (not the same one) dropped during Amanda Craig’s Love in Idleness. It’s an updated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Blair’s Tuscany.
My Shakespeare’s better than my Homer, so once I got it, I was away. Polly and Theo Noble, the rich couple who hire a posh villa and then invite all their friends to stay, are, of course, noble Theseus and Hippolyta, whose marriage is the catalyst for the MND action. Yet Polly is a gentle sort, whereas one imagines Shakespeare’s Queen of the Amazons as a fiery (and possibly one-breasted) type, cedy not given, as Polly is, to rustling up meals non-stop and collecting everyone’s laundry. Not to mention talung a whole load of crap hm her mother-in-law. Theo is a better fit on this fiont, an American lawyer, whlch is in keeping with Theseus’ level-headed style.
Also closer to the Shakespeare are house guests Ellen (willowy Wasp fashionista with Helena’s all-important height) and Hermani, a curvy and of course diminutive Asian babe. Close, too, are the impish children Tania and Bron and Robbie (for Robin Goodfellow, presumably), who cast spells on the adults and make them fall in love with the wrong person. Bottom seems to be represented by Craig’s favourite anthero, the splendidly ghastly and lecherous Ivo Sponge. But I could be wrong, because there’s lots about Guy (a gay celebrity gardener) having hairy ears.
The reason I’m not sure about Bottom is that I decided to read the book on its own terms rather than rummage for references to Shakespeare. For books like this can present problems: where does the literary in-joke end and the story begin? Concentrating on the one means missing out on the other. And in the Shakespeare, the four lovers are rather dull anyway (strike me down, but I’ve always thought so), whereas haughty Titania and naughty Puck are deliciously vivid. So focusing on Demetrius and CO and updating their antics to Italian villa holiday romancing is ingenious, but fiaught with danger.
Craig does a great job, however. She gets round the dullness problem by giving the lovers rich inner lives – Hermani is an anxious Indian single-mum doctor, Daniel (Demetrius) an uptight American Shakespeare scholar. Both they and Ellen have issues about being foreigners abroad; thus Craig cleverly tackles the original Shakespearian theme of exile and loss. By contrasting Ellen and Hermani, she takes on the MND class issue too, rather brilliantly exploring how the idea of caste is more rigid in Western society than we would like to think. Hermani, though Hindu, believes in romantic love, whereas ambitious Upper East Sider Ellen is hellbent on a match commensurate with her status.
Then there is Craig’s rich, honed style and dry comic touch, perfectly teamed with a subject as juicily &aught as that of tkiends talung an up-market villa holiday together. It’s the perfect up-market villa holiday read, in fact.