Thursday, March 10, 2011

Romeo, Romeo...oh you know the rest

From Elle (great Q&A with author!)
So, don't strike me down with lightning or anything but I've never been a big fan of Romeo and Juliet. I thought Romeo was a bit of a wimp and Juliet just seemed to cry her way through the play. This was a revelation to me when I read it the first time. I was a hopeless romantic, adored every love story I read but come to my first Shakespeare and I just didn't get it. I have since learned I'm more of a Beatrice kind of girl than a Juliet and that is infinitely cooler but back in 8th grade, I was seriously concerned about myself. The greatest love story of all time and I didn't like it?! Luckily we read A Midsummer Night's Dream in 9th grade and my love of Shakespeare was born but still, I've always wanted to love Romeo and Juliet more than I do.

So when a friend pointed out Anne Fortier's novel Juliet to me last year I thought maybe this was my chance, maybe someone would finally make me love this play. I'm not sure the book deserves that much praise but I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who would enjoy taking history and fiction and melding it into a romantic adventure in modern-day Siena.

Julie Jacobs has never belonged. She's never really tried, knowing whatever she expressed interest in, her twin sister Janice would mock into oblivion. So she's skated along in life, forever the outsider with a protester's past and a blank future. Then her Aunt Rose dies and sets Julie off in an adventure in her native Siena where her long-dead mother once almost solved the great mystery of the real Romeo and Juliet and was trying to lift the curse on the houses when she died. Julie, always wanting to know where she belongs jumps into the mystery, not understanding she just embarked on the most dangerous adventure of her life.

Reading this right after People of the Book was a risk; both books have a similar format where you follow a modern day character unraveling the mystery the reader also sees unfold in historical chapters. What I think helps Juliet is the modern-day tale is always the focus of the book; the historically based chapters never take over the narrative completely and in fact fall off later in the story. Fortier also changes how she tells the history; some chapters are from the characters' points of view, others are chapters told as if they were bedtime stories to the modern day heroine. This change in format makes all the difference to me as it kept me on my toes as a reader and meant the story was not always going to be predictable.

Another major difference, and where Fortier almost succeeds in winning me over to the Romeo and Juliet bandwagon, is she fleshes out their characters brilliantly. You don't necessarily always like them but they are always interesting and fun to read about. Her characterization of the original Juliet alone made me want to hug her. Here was a girl who wanted revenge, who was filled with anger and hate and who did not fall in love with Romeo without asking a price from him. I'm not sure how she did it but her Romeo and Juliet were equals, both passionate and fierce. They were fighters originally, browbeaten into submission and death by the society they found themselves in. Miscommunication plays a part but it is not what leads to their deaths ultimately. I liked that; I always despised that part of the plot in the play. It seemed too easy an ending.  

The modern-day Julie is more complicated; a woman who has spent her whole life trying to be opposite of her sister, trying to fade into the woodwork. She loves dead and fictional men because they cannot hurt her (word on that sister - my ideals are often fictional or dead). When she dares to go on her big adventure, she is unsure and scared but she also has a will to fight and to follow her instincts. In fact, it is when Julie doesn't follow her heart that she gets into trouble. She is in turn likable and yet pathetic. You want to hug her and say "you go girl" and then the next minute you're smacking the page going "really hon? really?" which is a realistic character when you think about it. One thing you do want is a happy ending for her and Shakespeare does his best to thwart her throughout the narrative.

Once I started reading this book, I had a hard time putting it down. The action is fast paced and entertaining. In a sense, it's a very cinematic book in that I had an easy time of it imagine how scenes played out and what sort of music might work best in the background. Fortier's descriptions of Siena and its surrounding countryside show a woman who knows her landscape and loves it. She understand a balance between telling a story to the reader and letting a reader unfold it as she goes. Not always the easiest balance to strike but she did well here. Heck, she almost made me want to read Romeo and Juliet again and that is saying something.

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