Juliet has a really fascinating concept. A modern young woman, Julie Jacobs, discovers that she is really Giulietta Tolomei, descendant of a 14th century Siennese woman of the same name who was the original model for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The book alternates between modern-day Julie’s journey from the U.S. to Italy where she uncovers not just her roots, but some very dangerous present-day enemies, and the historical story of two star-crossed Siennese (not Veronese) lovers who might be the real Romeo and Giulietta.
Can I tell you one of my darkest secrets? After teaching Romeo and Juliet for years, seeing countless stage productions and both major movie versions numerous times, and even being an extra in a summer Shakespeare production … I really hate this play. I mean, I love Shakespeare’s language, but it’s just such a stupid, stupid plot. I think in an ideal reading or production of the play, you should find yourself hoping that somehow the ending will change and the lovers survive this time. But at this point in my R&J experience, every time I have to sit through it, I just find myself thinking, “Die already!! How long does this have to take???”
Anne Fortier actually manages to create a historical Romeo and Juliet who are far more interesting than Shakespeare’s characters, whose actions have more believable motivations, and whose fate is genuinely tragic rather than just stupid. She made me care so much about the characters that I actually did hope against hope that they’d make it and this version would have a happy ending.
The modern-day story is less successful. The writing is uneven — I found the characterization inconsistent and sloppy in places; there were details that I knew were wrong, which always makes me suspect the accuracy of other deatils in the book (examples: Julie Jacobs is a grad-school dropout and spends her summers directing student productions of Romeo and Juliet, but is shocked when she discovers that the story isn’t original to Shakespeare — a fact well-known to anybody who has even a passing acquaintance with the play as a student, teacher or director). The main romance story in the modern-day plot is filled with hackneyed romance stereotypes, and the relationship between Julie and her sister, which changes as Janice moves from being a cardboard “bad girl” stereotype to a half-decent human being, was never believable to me at any stage. Still, there is a surprising revelation about two-thirds of the way through the modern-day story that did genuinely pique my interest, and as the book became more of a thriller near the end I did keep turning pages. However, the contemporary characters never did grab my imagination as much as the historical ones did, and this book’s real strength is as a historical novel retelling one of the best-known love stories in our culture, in a way that makes it actually interesting again.