UNDER A DANCING STAR by Laura Wood
I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Libro.fm, online retailers that support independent booksellers. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission. For more information, see my “About” page.
I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher to write this review.
Beatrice quite enjoys shocking the vicar. Certainly, it’s more interesting than sitting at her parents’ dinner party, ignoring the fact that they’re trying to marry her off to a boring family friend and not talking about the most interesting development in her life, namely the recent copulation of glowworms by the lake.
But her rudeness at table is the final straw for her parents, who promptly ship her off to stay with her uncle Leo in Italy. Upon arriving, she is surprised to discover that her uncle is hosting a group of artists for the summer, the most infuriating of whom is Ben, a young man with a terrible reputation. But Bea soon realizes she could put Ben’s terrible reputation to good use. They make a pact to conduct a scientific courtship so that Bea can learn about sexual congress in practice, as well as in theory. The one rule is that neither must fall in love with the other. It seems like an easy agreement. But as tension grows among the artists and whispers of Mussolini’s sinister intentions circulate around them, Bea begins to worry that her summer with Ben will be far from easy and scientific.
Although this novel is marketed as “an adaptation of” MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, it is more accurately a prequel, a depiction of the “merry war” between Benedick and Beatrice that Leonato references in Act I, before the action of the play begins. While you won’t find a point for point pairing with MAAN in the plot, the novel is true to the spirit of the characters and the tone of the play–raucously funny but with serious, heart-wrenching undercurrents (in this case, the insidious rise of fascism in 1930s Italy). For this reason, it would work well in a classroom, with the caveat that Ben and Bea do have sex (off-stage) which I know would be an automatic disqualifying factor in some school environments.
Shakespeare parallels aside, there is a lot to love in this book simply as a YA historical fiction. Beatrice is a nuanced, feminist character; Ben has emotional depth; the romance builds authentically; and the historical backdrop has the right balance of lush world-building and thought-provoking social and political commentary. Highly recommend this one for YA historical fiction readers, book clubs, and (where possible) classrooms!