Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

Six teenagers’ lives intertwine during one thrilling summer full of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals in this sparkling retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

After she gets kicked out of boarding school, seventeen-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle’s estate on Long Island. But Hey Nonny Nonny is more than just a rundown old mansion. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, runs a struggling speakeasy out of the basement—one that might not survive the summer. Along with Prince, a poor young man determined to prove his worth; his brother John, a dark and dangerous agent of the local mob; Benedick, a handsome trust-fund kid trying to become a writer; and Maggie, a beautiful and talented singer; Beatrice and Hero throw all their efforts into planning a massive party to save the speakeasy. Despite all their worries, the summer is beautiful, love is in the air, and Beatrice and Benedick are caught up in a romantic battle of wits that their friends might be quietly orchestrating in the background.

Hilariously clever and utterly charming, McKelle George’s debut novel is full of intrigue and 1920s charm. For fans of Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, and Anna Godbersen.

Title: Speak Easy, Speak Love
Author: McKelle George
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Romance, Retelling 
Targeted Age Range: Young Adult
Representation: Black main character, Black minor characters
Trigger Warnings: Alcohol, alcoholism, guns & gunfire, shooting (on-page, not graphic), mentioned past parental death, mentioned death of a family member, smoking, bootlegging, a strained relationship with a parent, sexist language, racism, blood (chapter 22), knives (chapter 22), implied slut-shaming
Rating: ★★★★☆

When trying to decide what my third Shakespeare-related post for the month would be, I knew that I wanted to review a retelling. But the question was, which retelling? I searched and searched (I added quite a few books to my ever-growing TBR list) and then found Speak Easy, Speak Love. Once I saw that it was a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing I knew it would be a perfect choice, considering I just finished my Much Ado reread. 

What initially drew me to this story was the fact that it’s set in the 1920s. I really love the aesthetic of the 1920s, so I enjoy reading stories set in that time period, and I really liked the idea of a Much Ado About Nothing retelling set in the 1920s. Something I loved was how much research went into Speak Easy, Speak Love. I’m not a 1920s history buff by any means, but all the details felt very authentic. McKelle George clearly did her research when writing. I particularly enjoyed that she had included information about the 1920s and how they inspired her writing choices in the author’s note. 

As we have established on the blog, I absolutely love retellings. I love seeing how an author pulls inspiration from the original work and the twists that they put on the story. I think that George did a great job of making the story her own while keeping the characters recognizable to lovers of the original story. There were also little shoutouts to Shakespeare’s comedy throughout the story. The chapter titles were taken from lines in Much Ado. The speakeasy being named Hey Nonny Nonny comes from lyrics of “Sigh No More” in the original story, Hero saying, “well, it’s not Shakespeare” after reading one of Benedick’s poems  — those little things added a lot to the story for me and I loved it. 

I was really a fan of the characterization, particularly that of Beatrice, Hero, and Maggie. I felt that George added the rising feminist movement into the book without it being preachy or falling far into the “not like other girls” trope – though at times I think that came from some of the male characters a bit, but not the female characters. Beatrice, Hero, and Maggie all had their own distinct personalities, their own voices, and motivations. They were fully fleshed out and developed, though in my opinion Hero less so than Beatrice and Maggie. 

I loved the choice to have Maggie be a jazz singer at Hey Nonny Nonny. Maggie brought so much life and fun into the story, she’s a character that I found myself gravitating to right away. I found myself wishing I could hear her vocals and lose myself in her music. As I am not Black, I cannot fully speak to how accurate this portrayal was (note that the author is not Black either), but it seemed to me that Maggie’s struggles as a Black woman trying to break out in the world of jazz music was written very well and non-stereotypical. I think it would’ve been incredibly easy to fall into stereotypes, such as making sure to mention at any opportunity that Maggie is a young Black woman to ensure that the audience knows just how diverse the characters are. Which, unfortunately, we see authors do all too often instead of creating fully realized characters. I was glad that Maggie being Black was not her defining character trait, but simply who she was. She was a character, not a caricature. I also really loved her relationship with Hero, you could tell that the two women were very close and deeply cared about each other. 

Hero could be classified as your typical flapper girl, but she’s actually much more than that. While fun and definitely flirty, underneath all of that she cares about her family more than anything else. Whenever she spoke about her mother Anna (who sadly had passed away and I would’ve loved to know more about) there was such a softness to her and you really saw who she was. I loved how right away she took Beatrice in and she never once tried to change Beatrice. She respected her cousin for who she was, and Beatrice did the same. There were, unfortunately, moments where I felt that some of the men got a bit slut-shamey towards Hero when they did not agree with her choices. Sometimes it was shut down, but it was not done so clearly enough in my opinion. I do, however, like that neither Beatrice nor Maggie played into that. Something that I never understood from Much Ado was why Hero and Claudio ended up together, and I thought that the way George had everything play out was so well done.

I’ve always loved Beatrice, and I loved her in this story. She was tough, sarcastic, incredibly intelligent and so full of life. I loved that she wanted to be a doctor and was constantly working towards that goal. She is definitely the opposite of Hero when it comes to traditional femininity, but she never once acted like that made Hero any less than her. It would’ve been very easy for Beatrice to fall into the “I’m not like other girls” trope as I mentioned before, but luckily she did not. I loved her quick wit and headstrong nature, there were many times when she would say something and I would find myself laughing out loud because I could absolutely see myself saying the same thing. That could’ve been part of why I loved her so much; there are parts of her that I saw in myself. I also really appreciated her more vulnerable moments, one line that particularly touched me was, 

“she was not surprised that she was once again trying to figure out how to be herself when herself was more than anyone wanted”

I really loved the relationships between all three women. They were all supporting and encouraging of one another. They respected each other and helped each other. All three were different and never acted superior. I loved their dynamic and would’ve loved if there was even more of it throughout the story. 

Speak Easy, Speak Now is filled with some of my favorite tropes. Enemies to lovers, clearly as it’s in the original story as well, but there’s also found family and a little bit of fake dating. Three of my favorite tropes all in one book, I really couldn’t ask for more. I loved Benedick and Beatrice’s building relationship. It was definitely reminiscent of their relationship in Much Ado and I appreciated that while it took Benedick some time to warm up to Beatrice (and her to him), he never once dismissed her intelligence and it was clear that he respected her opinions. It was also great to be able to read things from both of their perspectives and see them fall for each other while thinking the other wasn’t in love with them. Additionally, the found family was just so good in this, I loved it. I could read multiple stories about all of these characters just existing at Hey Nonny Nonny. 

This is absolutely a character-driven story, which I loved, but I do think that sometimes the plot felt a little bit slow. That did not make me enjoy it any less, but there were moments where I wanted the story to move a bit quicker or switch to a different subplot sooner. I also felt that the ending was a bit rushed, but it wasn’t super bothersome to me. 

Overall I thought that Speak Easy, Speak Love was a really good and imaginative retelling. I would definitely recommend it to any fan of Much Ado About Nothing. It was a very strong debut for George, and I hope that she releases another book soon as I’d love to check out more of her work. 

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Book Shop | IndieBound

McKelle George is a reader, editor, perpetual doodler, and associate librarian at the best library in the world. When not at the library, she writes game scripts for Crazy Maple Studios. Her debut young adult novel Speak Easy, Speak Love is out from Greenwillow/HarperCollins in 2017, and her first graphic novel, The Heart Hunter, is coming from Legendary Comics. She currently lives in Salt Lake City with an enormous white german shepherd and way, way too many books.

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