What if...Anne Shakespeare had followed her husband to London and, posing as his sister, collaborated with him? In fact, being the sole author of many of the Bard's greatest works - Othello, Lear, Hamlet, and that Scottish play, among others. That's the premise of Ryan's novel, and she carries it off most of the time. The Secret Confessions is a not wholly implausible, first-person account of Anne and William's marriage, their writing career, and Anne's life as the real genius behind the plays.
I can't recommend it, however. And it's primarily because of the writing, which occasionally rises above the merely competent but not often enough to fully engage me. [In fact, up until about page 75, I was considering dropping this read but then Anne reaches London and the pace quickened for a while.] Ryan does manage to capture several powerful moment's in Anne's life, at which points the writing comes alive. For example, there's a eureka! moment when Anne hands off Romeo & Juliet to WS, who realizes that she's a brilliant author, probably better even than him. Or there's the fraught relationship between Anne and Ben Johnson. But it's broached and concluded within a couple of chapters; the writing then sinks back to "adequate."
For a narrator who's supposedly responsible for this:
To be or not to be - that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
the writing should be - well - Shakespearean. Or at least strive for it, but it isn't and I never quite believed the narrator's story. There's a point when Anne is searching the bookstalls of London searching for inspiration and she makes the observation, "Even for recreation's sake, I simply could not abide incompetent writing" (p. 366). Which is close to what I felt while reading much of this novel. Though I wouldn't be so harsh as to say "incompetent." As I mentioned above, the writing is decent. It's fault lies in its flatness.
Ryan is too safe. She takes no chances with her characters or her story. Take the love triangle from the Sonnets. Ryan had a perfect opportunity to make Anne - WS's lover and rival - the Dark Lady but she doesn't. The entire WS-Southampton episode that so exercises many of the Bard's fans today is related as hearsay, and doesn't affect Anne at all nor does it seem to get Shakespeare riled up except for a few vague misgivings about the earl and what his coterie of favorites gets up to.
It's not a bad read and there are moments when it rises to a good one but not enough to make this a favorite among my Shakespeare-related fictions. If you're looking for something better written and more adventurous, I'd recommend Robert Nye's The Late Mr. Shakespeare.