Book Review: Juliet (Fortier)

May 12, 2010

*ARC alert* Juliet will be released on August 17th by Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House publishing group (hardcover, $25.00).

Shakespeare’s pair of star-crossed lovers have been at the center of the world’s most famous romance for centuries. Everyone knows it from English class at the very least– in long-ago, far-away Verona, the young pair Romeo and Juliet fall madly in love despite the feud that sets their families as deadly enemies, and the rest is history. But not really, right, because Romeo and Juliet is a fictional story?

Perhaps. Regardless of whether it began in fact or fancy, the story of Juliet and her Romeo goes back farther than the Bard. As Anne Fortier shows us, it began in Siena, a city in Tuscany, Italy, a city famous for the blood feuds that went on for centuries between the houses of Tolomei and Salimbeni. Sound familiar?

This is the basis from which Fortier unfolds her epic and beautifully delivered story, which follows two young women, each bearing the name Giulietta Tolomei. One lives in 14th-century Siena and dares to love the infamous young playboy Romeo Marescotti, though she has been promised to the head of the Salimbeni house. The other has lived her life up until now in America, as Julie Jacobs. When her aunt and guardian dies suddenly, Julie inherits only a key to a safe-deposit box in Siena, which she is told contains a family treasure that her mother hid shortly before she died, when Julie was two. Instead of the solution to her credit card debt, however, Julie finds a box containing letters that suggest that Juliet was indeed a real person, and that her curse– “A plague on both your houses!”– may still be at work, and that Julie is its next target.

Though this is a work of fiction, it is astonishingly well-researched (for which Fortier thanks her mother) and given to us inĀ  a way that makes it seem utterly plausible. It belongs to the same group as stories such as The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure; a character discovers that they have a connection to a famous event in history and that that event’s legacy is still at work in the world today. Secret societies optional. I’ve never particularly enjoyed this genre, and to a certain extent Juliet did not suit my personal tastes, but there is no denying that it is beautifully written and meticulously thought out. I found myself connecting with the medieval heroine more than the modern one– though Julie can be clever, Giulietta possesses a caustic wit which she doesn’t hesitate to apply to anyone who rouses her ire. Also, her Romeo is more of a knight-in-shining-armor than the bawling man-child Shakespeare made him out to be.

I do not know if the ardent fans of the more famous story will approve of this new twist, but I certainly enjoyed its insights into how things might have really worked out in medieval Italy. My one real criticism is that things got a bit confusing toward the end. I might have to go back and read again to figure out how the pieces of Julie’s mystery all fit together, and how her Romeo was involved. A lovely debut all the same- four stars.

This book contains explicit sexual content.