Everyone knows the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, right? Most of us would have had a hard time getting out of high school English without at least a passing introduction to the tale of star-crossed lovers. Well, in her debut novel, JULIET, Anne Fortier introduces a side of the Bard's tragedy that may have readers looking at this timeless tale in a whole new way.
Julie Jacobs is somewhat adrift when she learns of her great-aunt's death: single, supporting herself by drifting from drama camp to drama camp as an itinerant director. The death of her great-aunt Rose, who raised Julie and her vivacious, somewhat obnoxious sister Janice, comes as a surprise, but not as much of a surprise as Rose's will. Aunt Rose left her house to Janice; to Julie, she left only an antique box containing a key to a safe-deposit box in Siena, Italy.
Julie has always known that she was born in Italy and lived there as a child with her parents before their deaths. But Aunt Rose kept Janice and Julie away from Italy. Why is she encouraging Julie to return there now? The safe-deposit box provides her with more questions than answers, as she begins to piece together stories and clues from the cryptic, incomplete papers and drawings contained within.
Julie's first major discovery is her real name --- Giulietta Tolomei --- the name shared, as she discovers, with an ancient ancestor who just might have served as the inspiration for the story of Romeo and Juliet. Fortier weaves together Julie's discovery of her origins --- and of the origins of Shakespeare's play --- with the story of the original Giulietta Tolomei. The Tolomei family's feud with the equally powerful Salimbeni family seems to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's work, but the events that prompted the legend took place in Siena, not Verona. There, as Julie discovers, ancient feuds have not been forgotten, and she might be putting her own life in danger by asking too many questions. Can Julie --- and her newly-discovered "Romeo" --- reverse the curse that has plagued both their houses for centuries?
Fortier's well-researched debut may inspire many readers to return to Shakespeare's tragedy to see what they missed the first time around. The narrative gives the classic story new relevance as it switches back and forth between centuries in two parallel but distinct storylines. At times, the narrative voice seems a bit artificial, as if the author is trying a little too hard to differentiate the formal, elevated style of the 14th century from Julie's slang-filled contemporary voice, which, at times, is at odds with her thoughtful, analytical character.
That being said, JULIET is a rip-roaring adventure story, mystery, and foreseeable but satisfying romance, all rolled into one. Julie's journey to Siena is, of course, as much about her own self-discovery as it is about uncovering her family's ancient and recent history. In the end, the reader realizes that these various roots and branches are, in fact, fascinatingly inseparable, forming a complex picture of family and literary history, not to mention a suspenseful tale that will appeal to fans of THE DA VINCI CODE and THE HISTORIAN.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 24, 2010