Although chapters told from Romeo's point of view sprinkle the novel, the story belongs to Juliet. Maxwell's Juliet, older than Shakespeare's and infinitely more headstrong, is the daughter of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. Having shared a tutor with her friend Lucrezia Tornabuoni, daughter-in-law to-be of patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici, Juliet is well-educated in letters and philosophy. A lover of Dante, she writes poetry of her own. Her parents intend to marry her to self-serving Jacopo Strozzi, scion of one of Florence's wealthiest merchant families, in order to expand their fabric business. Their plans, however, implode when mysterious Romeo woos Juliet with Dante's verse at Lucrezia's engagement party.
Romeo, a student who has just returned from Padua via his uncles' estate in Verona, is a thoughtful, poetic soul who longs to reestablish peace between his house and Juliet's, which have been locked in a blood feud for a generation. Meeting Juliet convinces him she is the "lover of great fortitude" an astronomer prophesied for his future. He works hard to patch the rift between the families; despite the Capelettis' understanding with Jacopo, Romeo is certain he will be able to successfully sue for Juliet's hand.
Sensing the danger Romeo poses to his plans, Jacopo begins to press Juliet's father to formalize the engagement. Juliet and Romeo marry in secret, but before they can announce their marriage, Jacopo engineers a tragic crisis that results in Romeo's banishment. Abandoned and facing imminent marriage to Jacopo, Juliet takes her fate into her own hands and sets into motion a series of events destined to reunite her with Romeo. The crisis plays itself out in as touching and tragic a manner as the ending of the original play, but with a coda that celebrates the triumph of true love.
As always, Ms. Maxwell's readable style and strong characterizations make this book an enjoyable read. Discovering which elements she preserves from the original drama and watching how she manipulates them as she crafts a fleshed-out novel from the skeleton of a play adds to the experience. The setting is well-drawn and rich with details about Florentine social life and marriage customs. Juliet and Romeo are well-matched in their love of poetry and zest for life; theirs is a union of minds as well as bodies and hearts. A fine tribute to Shakespeare's legendary lovers, O, JULIET is ultimately a celebration of true love in any and every age.
I have one copy of O, JULIET to send to a reader in the continental United States. Please leave a comment here with your email address by 10 pm PST Tuesday, February 9, 2010. Winner will be chosen at random and posted by noon, Wednesday, January 10. Good luck!