By Anne Fortier
HarperCollins, 464 pages, $30
THOUGH the story of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers has been told countless times, it seems it is still powerful enough to spawn new versions on a regular basis.
In this contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet, dubbed simply Juliet, author Anne Fortier offers a well-balanced and engaging mix of fact and fiction, putting her own spin on the familiar and much-loved tale.
Fortier, born in Denmark but now residing in Quebec, focuses her narrative on Julie Jacobs, the quieter and more thoughtful twin to her sister Janice, defined by her selfishness and cruelty.
Born in Italy, the two girls moved to Virginia at a young age with their Aunt Rose after their parents were killed in a car crash.
The novel opens with the two sisters, now in their 20s, returning home after their aunt has passed away.
As part of her inheritance, Julie receives a mysterious letter and a key to a safety deposit box in Siena, Italy. Knowing her aunt always kept secrets about the Jacobs family's past, Julie goes in search of treasure.
What follows is a mix of past and present as Fortier parallels Julie's adventure with a retelling of Romeo and Juliet from her point of view.
Fortier bases her narrative in Siena, where the real Romeo and Juliet were believed to have lived in the 1300s. It doesn't take long for Julie to discover her own past is inextricably linked to the real Juliet, Gulietta Tolomei of AD 1340.
Julie also discovers that even though the characters in Shakespeare's tale are long gone, they are still alive and breathing in the streets of Siena.
The plot is mostly engaging except for a few chapters in the middle where Julie's misadventures in Siena drag a little. But the chapters set in the 1300s and the opening chapters set in the present certainly make up for the novel's slower sections.
And during the second half of the book, Julie's own love story picks up momentum.
In some cases -- for example, the real identity of the modern-day Romeo -- Fortier is adept at surprising her readers, lending a charming air of mystery.
However, in other cases, plot twists -- such as who Julie's love interest ultimately turns out to be -- are obvious almost immediately.
While the story itself is well-told and will keep the pages turning, it does suffer from a few technical glitches.
Fortier's writing is generally clean and fluid but it becomes sloppy on some occasions. Phrases such as "we elbowed our way through a mess too nasty for words," or "How long our kiss lasted, I will never know. It was one of those moments no scientist can ever reduce to numbers," offer a lack of detail and insight that fails to draw the reader into the moment.
The novel also suffers from a lack of character development, particularly in the case of Janice. Portrayed as mean-spirited and greedy through most of book, she makes an about-face near the end with no explanation whatsoever. The effect is slightly jarring and confusing.
Overall, the complaints are minor and don't detract from what is an entertaining read that will certainly keep you guessing until the end.
Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer.