“All’s Well That Ends Well” has long been considered a “problem play.” Technically one of William Shakespeare’s comedies, it is peopled with unsympathetic characters, notably the cad Bertram and the putative protagonist, Helena, who inexplicably adores him. Challenging for professionals, the play is hardly the best choice for a college drama production, and yet Theater Studies professor Miranda Fitch will not be swayed — even as her students threaten to revolt. (They want to put on “Macbeth.”) Could it be that the 37-year-old theater director is intent on reliving her own glory days, before a horrific accident and crippling pain ended her stage career? Or is there something otherworldly — perhaps diabolical — going on?
That’s the premise for “All’s Well,” a stealthily captivating new novel by Mona Awad that, like its namesake, skews more dark than light as it casts its spell. As a problem drama with its own unsympathetic heroine, “All’s Well” gets off to a rough start. Like Awad’s previous novel, the New England Book Award finalist “Bunny,” “All’s Well” revels in its protagonist’s unlikability. Miranda is self-defeating, and she knows it, caught in a downward cycle exacerbated by drinking and abuse of the prescription painkillers she mixes and matches in her desperate search for relief. Drugged and depressed, she barely notices the outside world, and the opening pages wallow along with her in her suffering.
Awad writes pain vividly, wielding increasingly hallucinogenic metaphors like the “fist behind the knee” and “the fat man settl[ing] into the chair that crushes my foot” as she chronicles the alternately condescending and dismissive attentions of Miranda’s mostly male caregivers. However, even this deft exploration of female suffering gets tiresome, and it’s a relief when Miranda’s self-involved misery is interrupted by her students’ long-threatened mutiny.
The students are hardly a sympathetic lot — spoiled, cliquish, and dim — and Awad captures their adolescent indifference as “they stare with wondrous bitchiness” at their limping director. Still, it’s hard to blame them when they stand up to her, demanding the right to perform “the Scottish play” as their annual Shakespeare production. Although Miranda’s assistant director, Grace, tries to hold the production together, Miranda seems hell-bent on sabotaging everything as she spirals out of control. She’s already lost her marriage, and her chance at tenure appears to be on the line as she undercuts her lead actress — the daughter of her program’s major donors — and nods out during rehearsals. The only bright light in her life is the mousy Goth girl Ellie, whom Miranda believes has real talent and whom she longs to cast as her heroine.
Fleeing her students’ revolt, the ailing academic ends up at the local watering hole, The Cunning Man, where, tellingly, even Grace deserts her. In her friend’s absence, Miranda finds herself talking to three strangers — “one tall, one fat, one middling. All wearing dark suits. All holding drinks.” As drinking buddies will, they commiserate. “I’m a fellow sufferer, Ms. Fitch. I’m just like you,” the middling man says. In their company, Miranda feels heard for the first time. When the same man recites a line from the play — “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven” — she wonders if perhaps she has finally met her people: theater people.
From that night on, Miranda’s life takes on a different trajectory. An anonymous donation specifically linked to her directing “All’s Well That Ends Well” wins over the dean. Her pain disappears, replaced by an increasingly manic energy. Her enemies fall, one by one, until Miranda is left with the grand prize seemingly in reach. All she has desired can be hers, but at what price? “We just want to see a good show, Ms. Fitch,” the three men have told her. “It’s all theater in the end.”
So it is, and the Bard is all over this book, salted with Awad’s sharp, dark humor. Far from her innocent namesake in “The Tempest,” this Miranda revels in her bad choices, for example, and, after hinting at her fate the three strange men, billed as “The Weird Brethren,” sing and tap-dance like an old vaudeville act. Miranda’s beloved “All’s Well That Ends Well” keeps popping up too, though the director doesn’t seem to know the play as well as she should. Focused on the romance — and her own lost glory days — she misses the implications of its transformative themes while defending her choice over the more accessibly dramatic “Macbeth.” “It’s got a witch in it,” she protests, in defense of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well.” A throwaway line, perhaps, but in Awad’s assured if trippy tale, everything serves to strengthen the spell.
Simon and Schuster, 368 pages, $27