I haven’t been as excited about a book as I was when I got to the end of Juliet in a long time. A year, maybe. Anne Fortier has managed what might well be the impossible: making Romeo and Juliet fresh again. Not in the way that West Side Story did, by re-setting and re-casting the story, but by taking the plain old medieval Italy Romeo and Juliet story and telling it straight and telling it well. The premise of the book is that modernday Julie Jacobs finds out that she is really Giulietta Tolomei, last daughter of a cursed house, and a great-to-the-nth-power niece of the Juliet, the real Juliet, the one Shakespeare based his story on–Giulietta Tolomei of 1340 Siena. Julie travels to Siena in search of a family treasure, but all she finds is a nest of convoluted clues, murky stories from the past, absurdly superstitious locals…and, perhaps, her destiny.
If you like the premise, you will love this book. If you love Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet then you need to read this story. I have always enjoyed the story of the two star-crossed lovers, and I have always related to the character of Juliet. When I was into theatre back in my youth, my dad took me to see a professional production of Romeo and Juliet and afterward asked who I’d play in it; “Juliet!” I exclaimed as if he were a big idiot for even needing to ask (alas that my one opportunity to perform Shakespeare put me in the role of Katherine the Cursed from Taming of the Shrew…although perhaps that was more appropriate to my actual personality). So when I took one look at the back of this book, I knew that I had to read it.
And it fulfilled every hope I had for it.
I don’t want to hype this book too much, because I know sometimes you can hear that a book is soooooooooo good and then either you get to feeling perverse and don’t want to read it because everyone is talking about it and there’s no way it’s really that good, or you believe the testimonials and get expectations that can never be met. And I don’t want that to happen. I want everyone who thinks they might like this book to read it and love it like I did. I went into my reading mostly blind, so I didn’t have anything except my expectations from the premise, but that was enough to set a high bar. And the book was that good. It made me giddy and giggly and impatient to get to the end and yet at the same time loath to finish it.
The book splits its time between the present and the Siena of 1340. After the first few chapters to get Julie to Italy and the documents, the chapters alternate between the two time periods, unfolding the story of the historic Romeo and Juliet alongside the modern Julie’s unpredictable search. This narrative technique drew out the tension to an equisite extreme; there were times when I had to skip to the next chapter of the same time period and then go back and pick up the other one, because the break was too much for me to handle, even for a single chapter.
The modern story is many things…a mystery, a treasure hunt, a tale of two sisters, an expose on how our beliefs and fears and hopes influence our reality. You never know who to trust, and for every moment that you, as the reader, saw coming when Julie didn’t, there’s another one that will surprise you. The story is by turns confusing (as you experience Julie’s world collapsing with her) and surreal and redemptive. But will Giulietta find a happily-ever-after this time around, or perpetuate the legend?
The triumph of this book, for me, though, was the “original” story. There is a sort of sick inevitability to the events of 1340, yet even as you know they are going to end in tragedy, you cannot help but feel anxiety for the characters—you want them to overcome the odds, somehow, even knowing they cannot possibly do so. I mean, the tragedy in medieval Siena spurred a legend that persisted for nearly 600 years, so you know going in there’s just no way it can end other than badly. Yet the story is still fresh, because this is a retelling, a vision of the story behind the story, and thus you never know exactly how things are going to go wrong—just that they are.
There are also moments in that old story that you want to go one way because of a character’s anxiety or hopes and fears, and feel relieved when their wish is granted, only to later realize it would have been better going the other way. One obvious one is Romeo’s rescue of Giulietta’s “body” at the very beginning—the friar wouldn’t let him look in the coffin where she was hidden, because she was awake and he felt it would be disaster for her to meet Romeo. But when she later meets him, anyway, and they have to conduct a clandestine love affair whose nature allows another man to get a claim on her hand first, you realize it would have been better, after all, for him to meet her in the coffin and walk her to her uncle’s house with a claim already made on her affections. In that story, they probably don’t live happily ever after—Romeo likely wouldn’t value her the way he did when she was denied to him, and they would have married and squabbled and never become more than so many marriages are. So which is the bigger tragedy? That they had a brief period of true love and were spared that withering discontent, or that they died young?
This was actually a theme that the author spoke about a little bit when I interviewed her back in May at BEA. Among other things. It’s a gracious and touching interview with a charming and lovely writer. If you’re still undecided on the book, perhaps she can persuade you to give her first novel a try.
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The writing in Juliet is elegant and easy, history breathes through the pages, and Italy always feels like a closed door or shuttered window away. The most famous love story of all time is brought back to life here, given ample room to be expounded and explored, and in the end the biggest fault I found with the book is that it was over too damn soon. And my mother is demanding my copy, so I can’t just go back to the beginning and read it again. 🙂
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.