Juliet is a fanciful play on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a modern-day romance and a historical mystery. Julie Jacobs of today’s Virginia is a little bit aimless and drifting at 25, when her beloved great-aunt Rose dies and leaves her a mysterious set of instructions: Julie is to go to Italy, where she was born, even though Rose had always refused to discuss her childhood there. She has a key to what appears to be a safe-deposit box at a bank, and not much more. There is some connection to Romeo and Juliet, a play Julie has always been a little bit obsessed with. Her twin sister Janice is cut out of the Italian connection – a relief to Julie, since Janice has always been the evil twin.
Upon arriving in Italy, the sheltered and naive Julie is accosted by whirling, complicated forces. Apparently she is descended from the ancient Tolomei family, in fact from Giulietta Tolomei, who seems to have been the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s play, whose romantic drama played out in 1340 Sienna. The Tolomeis have had a centuries-old rivalry with the Salimbeni family, and today’s Salimbeni matriarch befriends Julie – who we now know as Giulietta – with suspicious eagerness. There is an antagonistic Siennese man lurking around right from the start – and pardon my spoiler (because I don’t really think it is one), but you know how these mysterious antagonists are apt to turn into romantic interests…
Soon Julie/Giulietta is being stalked by faceless motorcycle riders, befriended or harassed by ancient cults, discovering centuries-old artifacts, and searching for a nameless treasure she thinks her mother – who she can’t really remember – has left for her in Sienna. She gradually learns that she is the modern-day Juliet, and only finding her Romeo will save the day, ending an ancient “curse on both your houses.” And, of course, the bitchy-to-the-point-of-caricature Janice shows up to muck up her adventures.
I was conflicted for most of this book. Often I was fascinated, or at least invested in the characters and wanting to know what happened. I was curious about the question of whether Julie was a little nuts – imagining things – and living out the ancestor-worship of beautiful, historic Sienna, or if there was an actual metaphysical/ghost story element to the book. In other words, would the mystery turn out to have supernatural causes, or were there merely real-life villains behind the smoke and mirrors? This question I will not answer for you, as it was one of the only sources of real suspense for me.
The biggest problem for me was some of the overwrought language Fortier employs. See my recent Teaser Tuesday for an especially ridiculous turn of phrase; and see also “…a wave of warm oblivion rolled onto the shore of my consciousness” or “…I wished more than ever that I could conk out just like her and fly away in a hazelnut shell, leaving behind my heavy heart” or “…the clues I needed were somehow bobbing around aloft, like newborn balloons trapped by a ceiling high, high over my head.” Newborn balloons? Really?? There was something else about her slipping through a doorway like a dryad between the cracks of time or something (I can’t find the passage right now). This style got in the way of my ability to focus on the story.
And the story was mostly good, but not always. For one thing, as alluded to above, certain elements of the romance were predictable. As I understand it, readers of typical romance novels do not care to be surprised; it’s okay if we know all along that Jack and Jill will end up together. But this, trying to be a little more of a suspense, was a touch predictable for my tastes (considering, too, that I’m not a reader of typical romance novels). There were definitely some moments when the characters left something to be desired, too. For example, the heroine realizes, when her inheritance turns out to be a dud at her beloved great aunt’s funeral, that maybe she was unwise to run up $20,000 in credit card debt while relying upon the expected inheritance. Her reaction does not seem to be that running up that kind of debt was unwise, but that it has turned out to be unwise in light of the absent inheritance. I have to say that this is not the most sympathetic quality to give your heroine if you want me to like her. She’s a little flimsy for my tastes. In addition, the pathetic nature of her self-loathing, and the supreme bitchiness of her infinitely more glamorous twin sister Janice, were too superlative to feel real. These are archetypes, not people.
But the characters grow and develop some, to be fair. Janice and Julie are both bigger, better people by the end, the romance is fairly satisfying, and the mystery is fairly well-resolved. This is not the most literary book you’ll find, nor the most deeply-felt or fully-wrought mystery or romance. But there is some suspense, and some enjoyable history and appreciation of Sienna – a lovely place I now want to see for myself. The characters are quirky and grew on me despite my protests. And even in my occasional frustration, I couldn’t put it down, so that’s a vote in favor.
Cassandra Campbell’s narration also gets a mixed review. Julie’s voice, with Southern twang, got on my nerves a little but also felt very realistic; the Italian accents I cannot judge for authenticity, but they felt right to my ignorant ear, and Alessandro the handsome Siennese antagonist came off as appropriately smoldering. Janice was almost intolerable – just as she was supposed to be. Both the twins’ voices were immature and verging on the Valley girl (in Southern translation) when they bickered: again, this was faithful to the story, but sometimes grating. In the end I give Campbell good marks; I was often bothered by the voices she played, but I think that was just her faithful portrayal of those in the book.
My final judgment seems to be that this was a fairly satisfactory book in the end, but I had my reservations throughout. It might work better for a lover of “pure” romance than it did for me, and I know it has its fans out there. Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts. I’m always interested in how these things grasp us differently.