Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: O, Juliet, by Robin Maxwell

Pages: 352
Original publication date: 2010
My edition: 2010 (NAL Trade)
Why I decided to read: I enjoyed Maxwell's novel on Elizabeth I a few years ago; the idea of a novel on Romeo and Juliet intrigued me.
How I acquired my copy: ARC through Amazon Vine
O, Juliet is the story of Juliet Capelletti, daughter of a merchant in Florence, who, betrothed to her father’s partner Jacopo Strozzi, falls in love with Romeo Monticecco, whose family own a rival company. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Juliet, and attempts to follow Shakespeare’s play.

I was so prepared to love this novel, but I simply didn’t. O Juliet is faithful neither to Shakespeare’s play, nor is it faithful to the historical story of Romeo and Juliet (and there really were a Romeo and Juliet, who lived in Verona in the early 14th century). Maxwell, for some inexplicable reason, chooses to set her story in 15th century Verona, which really had me scratching my head—especially when Cosimo de Medici entered the picture, since he doesn’t seem to add anything to the story.

The characters in this novel are not really believable and I found it hard to be empathetic towards them. Juliet comes across as an empty-headed girl, and the author’s attempts to give her book smarts really didn’t work for me. I also didn’t love Romeo’s character; he seems a bit wishy-washy. And their relationship seemed to be based more on hormones, not the great, abiding love of Shakespeare’s story. There’s also the rather buffoonish Strozzi (who’s never given much of a personality beyond his physical characteristics). Really, did we need to be told over and over how bad his breath is?

Bad characters can sometimes be excused, if the plot is any good; but here, it’s just awful. The author could have created something really awesome if she’d chosen to focus on the REAL Romeo and Juliet story (not necessarily Shakespeare’s version). If memory serves me right, in the original story, the Montagues and Capulets were on different sides of the Guelph/ Ghibelline political struggle in Italy in the late Middle Ages. THAT would have been a great story, given the story much more of a sense of conflict. In this novel, however, the main source of tension between the Monticeccos and Capellettis is caused by jealousy and petty rivalry in business. Not all that interesting, in my opinion, and not worthy of the title of "ancient grudge" that Shakespeare mentions in his play (the grudge is centuries old; so old in fact, that nobody remembers when it started. So the fight in this novel between two merchants, both presumably self-made men in early modern Florence, don't exactly have a deep-seated animosity towards one another).

As a side note, the writing is atrocious, and the author uses more clich├ęs than I could count. It was a pretty quick, easy read, and not one I’d particularly recommend. As I’ve said before, the novel draws heavily from Shakespeare’s play, and doesn’t add anything new or insightful to either Romeo or Juliet’s characters.


Clare said...

I've always read Romeo & Juliet as a cautionary tale about young, stupid love, I have to say, but this doesn't excuse a flimsy plot and poor characters, especially Juliet. I'm sorry you had to wade through this!

agoodstoppingpoint said...

It sounds like the book had plenty of faults, though Romeo always came across as wishy-washy to me in the play as well. And similar to Clare, I never thought the play was about a great love.

- Christy

Meghan said...

I haven't managed to like a Robin Maxwell book yet and I've been a little astonished by all the praise this book is getting in the blogosphere. Now I'm not sure what to think about this one, but I'm certainly not rushing to read it, especially given that I never really liked Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.

Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

dolleygurl said...

I would have to disagree with you - I really enjoyed this book. I had always had a hard time enjoying Shakespeare because I got bogged down with the poetic nature of the writing. I liked this because it was novelized. I felt that even though it was set in a different town and time period - there was much more depth to the story. I thought that Florence was beautifully depicted. And I do think that this book was still the cautionary tale - the basic points of the story are the same but embellished with more details.

S. Krishna said...

I thought this was a light, quick, easy read. I did enjoy it and thought she made the love story much more believable. It was interesting to read your reasons for not liking it!

Sarah said...

I haven't read O, Juliet yet, but if you'd like to read a novel that sets their story in early 14th-century Verona, try David Blixt's The Master of Verona if you haven't read it already. It intertwines their story with that of Dante and his son - I highly recommend it. Not a light read, but an entertaining one.

Gwendolyn B. said...

Yours is the first review of O, Juliet that I've read. It's receiving so much hype, I expected a much more positive review. I'm glad I can count on you expressing your honest opinion. I'd still like to check the book out for myself, but I won't be desperate for it!

Marg said...

It is interesting to read your review when there are so many positive reviews around blogland at the moment.

I would have to second Sarah's recommendation of Master of Verona - one of my favourite books.


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