What if Shakespeare’s tragic drama actually occurred in Siena, Italy, and not Verona? And what if Romeo and Juliet had descendants destined to play out once more that sad ending unless the curse is broken? Fortier explores these options in her retelling of the star-crossed lovers’ fate, drawing from other literary efforts that were published before Shakespeare eclipsed them all with his play. It all starts in America, when twins Julie and Janice Jordan lose their beloved Aunt Rose, who leaves her estate to Janice and a mystery to Julia that began in Siena years ago.
Neither twin remembers their mother or father after being orphaned at a young age and brought from Italy to America to be raised by Aunt Rose. So while Janice enjoys her new wealth, Julie travels to Siena, intent on unraveling a family mystery, meanwhile discovering identity, family, a potential lover and the politics that drove two great families apart centuries before, determining the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet - in this case, Guilietta Tolomei and Romeo Salimbeni.
Unsure about the trustworthiness of any of her new acquaintances but desperate for information, Julie begins a dangerous investigation, rooting through family myths and old texts, asking questions that arouse suspicion about her motives. Aware that she is being followed, twenty-five-year-old Julie is too intent on her quest to take precautions, although others are clearly at work to impede her progress; a reckoning looms on the horizon. Piece by piece, Julie assembles her clues but has difficulty putting them into the context of the region’s history and the powerful families that have battled for dominance over one another.
It isn’t surprising when Julie meets her Romeo - dark-eyed, moody Alessandro - although their first few encounters are predictably adversarial. This is the love-hate paradigm that fuels romance novels: villain versus lover, trust versus betrayal. As time will prove, Julie has made many erroneous assumptions about the intentions of others and been tempted too often to trust in her own ability to deflect trouble. The closer she gets to uncovering the secrets of the past, the more she is in danger from foes of whom she isn’t even aware.
The historical detail here is impressive and gives the novel the weight of authenticity, especially the chapters set in 1340, when Guilietta Tolomei first meets Romeo Salimbeni. These chapters buoy the story, the political antagonism that sets the stage for tragedy and the enmity between the families that have complicated the dense history of Siena over the centuries. More disappointing are the modern-day efforts of the protagonist, who begins her quest with the appropriate mix of suspicion and curiosity, unexpectedly discovering family ties, claiming the family identity that has been missing in her life.
While Julie’s relationship with her twin, Janice, often falls to the level of childish bickering, the girls’ lack of maturity ultimately alters the impact of the novel, at least for this reader. Once Janice arrives in Siena with her own particular brand of irreverence, the dialog suffers the cacophony of modernity. Julie becomes more like a frustrated Nancy Drew than a mature young woman on the cusp of a great discovery and the heady experience of first love, uttering phrases like “Janice’s muffin top tramp stamps, souvenirs from spring break in Australia” and other facetious remarks.
The drama of 1340 collapses under the assault of such random dialog and the foolish behavior of two young women acting like teenagers, their petty arguments distracting as Julie nears the completion of her investigation. At this point, the novel seems less historical fiction than a young adult adventure story. Whether or not that is the author’s intent, I cannot say. While the author maintains the tension of the plot, the resolution becomes less believable if not absurd, the predictable territory of young adult mystery, history and manufactured drama, a real disappointment.