Review of Anne Fortier's novel "Juliet," a riff on "Romeo and Juliet"
By Anne Fortier
Ballantine. 447 pp. $25
Julie Jacobs, the heroine of Anne Fortier's romantic novel "Juliet," is a hot mess. Orphaned at 3, Julie has spent her entire life trying to escape the influence of her fraternal twin sister, Janice. Janice is popular; Janice is beautiful; Janice is reckless; Janice is selfish. Janice, Janice, Janice . . . Consequently, Julie has arrived at the age of 25 with self-esteem so low that she can't think of any moment in her past that wasn't some horrible humiliation connected with her sister.
Fate intervenes when Aunt Rose, who has mothered the girls, dies suddenly and wills everything -- the house, the money, the art -- to Janice. All Julie gets is the name of a bank manager and a ticket to Siena, Italy, where the girls' parents met, married and died. As far as Julie is concerned, this second-class treatment is par for the course, and with a resigned sigh she toddles off to Siena, hangdog and unkempt.
Here we have the setup for one heck of a Cinderella story, if you can stand Julie long enough for the fairy godmother to show up -- and, fortunately Fortier doesn't waste any time. Julie meets Eva Maria Salimbeni on the plane to Siena, and is soon equipped with designer clothes and introduced to Alessandro, Eva Maria's darkly handsome godson, who works for the carabinieri.
Of course, the story would end here if the two fell in love, or even got along. But Julie still needs to track down that mysterious bank manager. It turns out he has a box for her containing a silver crucifix on a chain, a wad of papers and an old paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." This is where the story becomes truly interesting.
The papers, collected by Julie's dead mother, Diane, are manuscripts with the stories of the original Romeo and Juliet, who -- surprise, surprise -- lived in Siena, not Verona. Luckily, the story told in these documents is a fascinating tale with notable parallels to Shakespeare's version, but with its own identity and a distinct Sienese flavor.
From this point, the novel shifts back and forth between the Romeo and Juliet story and Julie's attempts to solve her own family's mysteries. The contents of the box, Julie's legacy, hold the key to something -- but what? Julie meets her long-lost Italian family and pursues her dead mother's clues. Meanwhile, she suspects Alessandro of all sorts of things, and vice versa, while her life is further complicated by a black-visored motorcyclist who stalks her through the streets.
The strongest point of the book is the flavorful, evocative descriptions of Siena, with its ancient neighborhoods, rivalries and family feuds, and the annual running of the Palio horse race. The Shakespearean scholarship on display is both impressive and well-handled, too, with the original Romeo and Juliet story doled out in exciting installments between Julie's increasingly convoluted but much less interesting story. We're asked to believe that the original evil done to the young lovers of 1348 must be put right by the sexual coming together of a modern-day Giulietta (guess who?) and Romeo (no extra points for guessing him, either).
On the whole, the story is fun, if silly, and engaging in spots. Its modern-day characters are mostly cardboard, though -- with the interesting exception of Janice, who despite her late appearance, once again succeeds in stealing the limelight from her drip of a sister.
Gabaldon's latest novel, "The Exile: An Outlander Graphic Novel," will be published later this month.