A Lost Shakespeare Play Prompts Ivy League Intrigue:
A Review of William Martin's Harvard Yard
By SAM WILLIAMSON
Early in William Martin's novel Harvard Yard, the protagonist, Peter Fallon, tells his son Jimmy that "some guys never get over the fact that they didn't get into Harvard, and some guys never get over the fact that they did." (Emphasis in original)
This exchange takes place early in the book. But by the time it does, any reader will already be well aware that Martin himself has never gotten over the fact that he got into Harvard - and that Martin's love and awe for the school will be the reader's cross to bear for the rest of this lengthy book.
Some people will like this book: people who have an extremely strong tie to Harvard, yet don't know a great deal about the school's history.
But not even every Harvard alum will enjoy this book. Full disclosure: I went to Harvard for law school, and had a great experience. (In fact, based on my anecdotal conversations with my classmates, I enjoyed my time in law school far more than most.) In addition, I had some contact with the undergrads by serving as a tutor in one of the college residential houses. Those contacts and warm feelings, however, were not even close to that necessary to enjoy this book.
Finally, for those who lack any particular interest in, or connection to, Harvard, this novel will seem like nothing more than hundreds of pages of Martin's love song to his alma mater. And the situation is not helped by the fact that the story purporting to underlie the hymns to Harvard is totally uninteresting.
A Lost Shakespeare Play Spurs a Journey Through Harvard's History
Harvard Yard purports to be about a lost Shakespeare play, Love's Labours Won, the companion piece to Love's Labours Lost. According to the novel, Shakespeare gave the manuscript to John Harvard's father as a present on young John's birth.
After his entire family was wiped out by the black plague, Harvard traveled to North America, where he became a huge financial success. Because of negative puritan attitudes towards the theater, however, he kept the existence of the manuscript secret.
On Harvard's deathbed, he made a large bequest to a recently founded college, which was then named for him. At the same time, he donated his sizable book collection to the school, without ever mentioning the Shakespeare play -- except to one person.
The only person Harvard told was a young student named Isaac Wedge, whom Harvard charged with safeguarding the play. The book thereafter follows two threads: the manuscript's path through history, always monitored by the Wedge family, and the modern day search of our protagonist, Peter Fallon, for the manuscript -- a search that is both aided and hindered by the current Wedge family members.
The historical journey of the manuscript serves as Martin's vehicle to show the history of Harvard, through the eyes of a series of Wedge family members who attended the school. Unfortunately, there is very little suspense to this part of the book, because there's no question that the manuscript had to survive to the modern day -- otherwise, there would be no point to the large chunk of the book devoted to Fallon's search.
As a result, the only interesting part of the historical section is the information about Harvard's past. And it is somewhat interesting to learn who John Harvard was, and how many of Harvard's buildings got their names. Similarly, Martin mentions many of Harvard's past presidents and the changes they made to the university during their tenures.
The bottom line, however, is that if you don't come to the book caring about Harvard's past presidents, or how Radcliffe College got its name, the information on those subjects won't be of much interest to you.
A Modern Story Weaker than the Novel's Historical Narrative
The modern story is even worse. Fallon is a dealer in antiquities who went to Harvard with some of the modern Wedges. They contact him to help locate and deal with the manuscript.
It's easy to understand why the manuscript is so valuable, and that, in theory, people might be willing to kill for a document worth millions of dollars. But the main players' motivations are all tied up in Harvard, and the story doesn't ring true; for example, it's hard to believe that someone would kill because they wanted to ensure that an undergrad residential house would be named in their honor.
At the same time, Martin mixes in other story lines that do nothing to help the main story of the search for the manuscript. The worst is a romance that seems to have been conjured up because an editor told Martin that all thrillers must have a romance, and because Martin wanted to reminisce about his college days and love interests.
In addition, one of Fallon's main goals is to ensure that his son gets into Harvard. That storyline leaves the reader stuck with lines like the one that Fallon delivers to Jimmy as he moves him into his freshman dorm:
When you're done in four years, you should feel satisfied, and mature, and well taught, but most important, you should feel tired … Burn the candle at both ends. Never tell yourself there's no time to direct a play or sing in a choral group or play rugby. Take a course in gene-splitting if you're an English major. If you major in biology, take a course in short-story writing. Study Chinese. Learn statistics. Get drunk at least once.
Good advice for any new freshman, unquestionably. But hardly riveting reading.
A Puzzle that Remains Unsolved Even After the Novel is Over
Martin's worst offense, however, is that he leaves the question of the manuscript unresolved. Even if he had tied up this question with great skill, this would be a flawed book. But with the central issue left open, the reader is left with nothing more than a heavy dose of Harvard trivia.
If you or one of your children is about to go to Harvard, or if you went to the school without getting your fill of school history, then you'll enjoy the knowledge the book imparts. Otherwise, you'll be left, as I was, wondering why you traded a few hours of your life for the knowledge that Lady Radcliffe was an English noblewoman who was an early believer in the benefits of educating young women.