Novel: Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George | Goodreads
Release Date: September 19, 2017
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Six teenagers’ lives intertwine during one thrilling summer full of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals in this sparkling retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
After she gets kicked out of boarding school, seventeen-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle’s estate on Long Island. But Hey Nonny Nonny is more than just a rundown old mansion. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, runs a struggling speakeasy out of the basement—one that might not survive the summer. Along with Prince, a poor young man determined to prove his worth; his brother John, a dark and dangerous agent of the local mob; Benedick, a handsome trust-fund kid trying to become a writer; and Maggie, a beautiful and talented singer; Beatrice and Hero throw all their efforts into planning a massive party to save the speakeasy. Despite all their worries, the summer is beautiful, love is in the air, and Beatrice and Benedick are caught up in a romantic battle of wits that their friends might be quietly orchestrating in the background.
Hilariously clever and utterly charming, McKelle George’s debut novel is full of intrigue and 1920s charm. For fans of Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, and Anna Godbersen.
For one, I really have to give the YA market props lately for how sexy they’ve made historical fiction to teen readers like me. I love history — considering a major in it, actually — but usually I find historical fiction to be a little too boring for my taste. Recently though, authors have stepped up to give it a little more va va voom.
Out of the YA books I’ve been lucky enough to read over the past year or so, a disproportionate amount of them have been Shakespearean retellings. One of my favorite professors teaches Shakespeare classes, and so I’ve spent almost two semesters entrenched in the Bard’s work. In any case, it wasn’t even the Much Ado About Nothing foundation that brought me to Speak Easy, Speak Love; I hadn’t even realized it was a retelling. I just saw “bootlegging” and wanted it. Lucky me.
Speak Easy, Speak Love was my first book after finals-induced death and so I’d been expecting to tear through it. Instead, I waded through it slowly and savored it, because so many of its elements were done well. For one, the pacing was phenomenal. The tensions were escalated to pitch-perfect points, and everything simmered below its surface. The story fit the indulgent 1920s atmosphere to a tee.
McKelle captured the dynamism of the relationships in the original story remarkably, through the same methods: witty dialogue that played with the are-we-enemies-or-are-we-friends line. All the relationships — friends, lovers, acquaintances, family — worked to propel the story in infinitely satisfying ways. Some moments were orchestrated in ways that made you want to sink into them for longer than they lasted. Lots of sultry dances and arguments and showdowns on shadowy docks.
The electrifying atmosphere of the speakeasy scene (particularly outside of Manhattan, which is where most similar books take place as I recall) did the original chemistry of Much Ado About Nothing wonders. Details fit neatly into the new-and-improved cast, shifts that felt effortless and kismet.
Part of this is due to McKelle George’s excellent control over her voice. The book is told in third-person — which I honestly usually try to avoid, because I find myself never engaging quite as well with it — but each character’s chapters conveyed the flavor of their persona in ways that completely changed the nature of what was going on. The writing honed the speakeasy aura, allowing it to seep into every aspect of the book. And while the writing itself was formal enough to fit with the era — and to smoothly incorporate some Shakespearean references — it was still readable. It mostly oscillated between Beatrice, Benedick, and Maggie’s perspectives.
Beatrice was gloriously stubborn, which I appreciated. She could be laugh-out-loud obstinate, which I appreciated. And her love of science was woven in so thoroughly into her character that it influenced the way she saw the more emotional aspects of what unfolded around her. She was also fiercely loyal to Hero and Hey Nonny Nonny, the speakeasy and property at which they all resided.
“Beatrice had never put much stock in gut feelings. Most of the time it was a rotten piece of meat more than anything else, but it was also true that the same molecules that registered information in the brain also appeared in organs like the intestines, stomach, heart, liver, kidneys, and spine; these, too, could send and register information. So one could, she supposed, have a legitimate ‘gut’ feeling.”
Maggie was a singer, most thoroughly. She was also a friend of Hey Nonny Nonny’s, the only black woman in the bunch (which led to some sticky and sad situations throughout the narrative considering the legality of what they were all trying to do), and was head-over-heels for their brooding Italian visitor. Although Beatrice was trying to go to medical school, Maggie was the sharpest of the bunch — and a pleasure to get to know. Her keen eye caught everything.
“He was an all right kisser. No firecracker, but Maggie had endured far worse on the sacred altar of jazz.”
“John reminded Maggie, as always, of a gun. He was made of hard lines: lean, obstinate jaw, straight nose. Trouble, in other words.”
Benedick was logical, but sometimes a little naïve. His optimism clouded the events nicely, and he was a good balancer of the emotional appeal of Hey Nonny Nonny at full blast.
All the characters swum together so nicely, getting each other into and out of trouble quick as a blink. The romantic tension was on par — so deliciously tangled and impossible — and I loved seeing the friendships develop as well. And all of these are centered around Hey Nonny Nonny, a struggling speakeasy.
Needless to say, the speakeasy scene could get a little edgy sometimes. Sometimes, there are secret agents, or guns. Moonshine snuck around on old boats. While anyone who’s read this book would instantly agree that its strength is in character development, I was pleasantly surprised by how great McKelle George was at plotting. The twists were clever, and the action was well-choreographed (when it did happen.) I’d be happy to read whatever she writes next, no matter which genre she chooses.
Overall, Speak Easy, Speak Love is a wild ride that captures all the best bits of my checklist. Sparkling characters with tension that lifts off the page. An engrossing plot with stakes that kept me engaged. Following the “spirit of the law” in both loyalty to Shakespeare — and in the crazy situations the characters find themselves in. Pair that with an indulgent atmosphere, and I’m officially won over. I’d highly recommend to a lot of different types of readers, because Speak Easy, Speak Love truly nails it.