New take on "Romeo & Juliet" fails to dazzle

By Carolyn Williams

Staff Writer

The title pretty much says it all in Anne Fortier’s “Juliet.” A beach read at best, Fortier’s attempt to reinvent Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers has moments of real intrigue, but the overall effect is spoiled, unfortunately, by her own over-complicated plot.

The main problem with the novel is the heroine, Julie Jacobs. Fortier sets her up to be a Cinderella type of under-appreciated chorus-girl-turned-star, but it’s hard to get past her awful personality, let alone enjoy her first-person narrative.

Julie Jacobs, she tells us, has spent her entire life stuck in the shadow of her beautiful, smarter, and more popular fraternal twin sister, Janice. The twins were born in Italy, orphaned in their early childhood, and raised by a well-meaning aunt. Counting on inheriting equal shares of said aunt’s considerable estate upon her death, Julie is shocked to hear that Janice has been given the entire estate, and that she has instead been left a ticket to Siena, Italy, and instructions to meet with her late mother’s bank manager, where some fabulous treasure supposedly awaits her.

After whining her way across the Atlantic, Julie, who has recently learned that her name was originally Giulietta Tolomei, bursts onto the scene in Siena. Naturally, she meets a sort of a fairy godmother along the way, who sees to it that she is outfitted in designer clothes and given a total makeover, then sent marching off to the bank to see what her mother has left her from beyond the grave.

In her mother’s vault, Julie discovers a silver crucifix, a large sheaf of old documents, and a battered copy of Romeo and Juliet. The oldest of the documents is the journal of Maestro Ambrogio, a painter in Siena who recorded his encounters with a pair of star-cross’d lovers, namely Giulietta Tolomei and Romeo Marescotti. Julie’s mother, it would seem, had been researching the history of Shakespeare’s play before her death, and had traced it successfully back to Siena in 1340, and its female lead just so happens to share the name of one of her daughters. The treasure, then, is determined to be a pair of priceless sapphires called Juliet’s Eyes, said to be set in the statue of Juliet built by her grave. The only problem is, of course, that nobody knows where Juliet’s grave is.

Meanwhile, of course, the real question remains, where is Julie’s Romeo? Julie herself spends a good deal of time analyzing this mystery, and while she suspects a certain dark stranger on a motorcycle, she is distracted by the brooding Alessandro, who, she suspects, is playing the role of Paris.

Fortunately for her audience, Fortier’s “original”, that is, Maestro Ambrogio’s supposed journal, which for about half of the book runs parallel to the modern plot, is exciting and unique, with enough of a connection to the Shakespeare play to make his plagiarism several centuries later seem plausible, without becoming predictable in the way Julie’s version does. This more entertaining section makes bearable the treasure hunt and search for Romeo, which regrettably become increasingly convoluted as the book progresses. Amusingly for the reader, Janice makes a return in the final act, once again stealing the insufferable Julie’s little-deserved thunder. Fast-paced at times, and at others painfully drawn-out, “Juliet” misses its mark.

 

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