At the heart of King Lear is the question of identity. Can you be a king if you’ve given away your kingdom? Lear’s fool says no, and in response to the king’s question, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he answers, “Lear’s shadow.” Claire Holden Rothman uses King Lear as the framework for her latest novel, an exploration of identity on a number of levels.
It’s summer in Montreal, and Bea Rose finds herself in a financial mess after her business and romantic partner dumps her, leaving her to run their yoga studio by herself. Bea is shattered by Jean-Christian’s defection, and when the opportunity arises to be the assistant stage manager for an outdoor production of King Lear, she jumps at the chance, even though she knows almost nothing about the theatre. But she is desperate to earn some money, unaware how little the job will actually pay.
One of her main tasks is to keep tabs on the mostly functional alcoholic Phil Burns, who plays Lear. Although capable of charm, Phil has been unable to repair a damaged relationship with his grown daughter, whose mother is Phil’s ex-wife and the play’s director. Further complicating Bea’s integration into theatre life is the artistic director, Artie White, whom Bea knew and loved in childhood.
Troubles also arise in the world outside the theatre. Bea’s sister Cara and her husband Didier have a raw food restaurant called Crudivore, which has developed a reputation as the darling of the fashionable set. Didier has managed to get himself involved with Gen-Vie, who works for him at Crudivore.
By far the most obvious thematic connection to Lear is Sol, Bea and Cara’s father, a widower who is in the early stages of dementia. The disease appears to progress rapidly, and he can no longer live alone.
Bea races around Montreal on her bicycle trying to keep all the fragments of her almost 40-year-old life from becoming completely separated, and in all the rushing, she begins to forge a new life for herself. Rothman makes great use of the ubiquitous Montreal summer storms to riff off the action of the play and to engage in an examination of identity and how it can shift. It’s particularly appropriate that acting reveals truths about human behaviour, and the layers of richness in Shakespeare’s play create a solid foundation for Rothman’s novel.