Book review: ‘O, Juliet’ by Robin Maxwell

When Juliet Capelletti meets Romeo Monticecco, their mutual love of poet Dante that draws them together — even more than the tender looks exchanged between them at a ball. In a meeting of the minds and lips, the young lovers fall swiftly in love without regard for the odious marriage Juliet’s parents have arranged for her — or the ancient feud between their warring families.

Even as plans are made for Juliet to wed the wealthy, contemptible man her father hopes to bring in as a business partner, Romeo and Juliet’s passion threatens to consume them all. No plan to keep them apart can succeed — even when a tragedy drives Romeo far from the young woman who has ensnared his heart.

Robin Maxwell’s O, Juliet is a retelling of a story that needs no introduction; I can’t believe there’s a soul left on the planet who isn’t familiar with the “tale of woe” that is Juliet and Romeo’s ill-fated love affair. While Maxwell shows a colorful imagination in putting our famous lovers in new but equally heart-wrenching scenarios, something about this novel failed to fully capture my attention

Removed from the fair city of Verona where William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is set, Maxwell brings us to Florence, Italy, where the Capellettis are a successful merchant family and the Monticeccos, a more working-class lot, are winemakers. Signore Capelletti is busy wooing Jacopo Strozzi, a successful wool merchant, to his business — and a union with Juliet, the Capellettis’ only surviving child, is offered to sweeten the deal. Jacopo is predictably disgusting; Juliet is predictably disgusted. Jacopo is concerned only with wealth and image, though he can’t be bothered to bathe or brush his teeth. (Did they brush their teeth in the 15th century? I feel they must have.)

Romeo, of course, is Jacopo’s polar opposite: kind-hearted, handsome, intelligent. He admires in Juliet everything that Jacopo does not, especially her sense of humor, wit and understanding of the world. Educated along with her wealthy best friend, Lucrezia, Juliet isn’t some puppet manipulated by the family for their gain . . . or, well, she is. But she’s not, you know? Though her father wants to sacrifice her to Jacopo in order to secure the family business, Juliet is determined to fight the match . . . and Romeo swoops in, all good looks and romance and sweet-smelling breath that makes Juliet swoon.

What I did like about Maxwell’s O, Juliet is the fact that she has aged our lovers. Juliet isn’t a naive, virginal 14-year-old ready to kill herself in order to be with some guy. Mature, sophisticated and wise, this Juliet — at 18 — is a writer, dreamer and philosopher. She’s also a woman weighed down by the family’s grief over losing their beloved sons, Juliet’s brothers. She seems less like a petulant child and more the dutiful daughter, and I related more to her predicament than I ever did in the Bard’s play.

My first encounter with Romeo & Juliet came in high school, when we took a round-robin approach to reading Shakespeare’s play aloud my freshman year. I played Juliet (but of course!) and was thrilled when a cute boy in a neighboring seat read Romeo’s lines. That’s the heady feeling this story evokes: that memory of first love and obsessive devotion to one other person; that universal thrill of having your feelings returned. At its core, Romeo & Juliet — and O, Juliet — is about two people who fall so deeply in love that they would rather die than be without the other.

And so they do.

Spoilers in this paragraph. Highlight to read. I don’t know what I was expecting. Knowing that the story of Romeo and Juliet is considered, above all, a tragedy, I still found myself wanting them to live by the end — because, you know, Maxwell is a writer! She has an imagination! She can do whatever the heck she wants! Call me an optimist, but I found it to be a complete downer that I spent 306 pages reading about two vibrant people who kill themselves in the end. Just . . . not a feel good read.

Still, I read this book quickly and appreciated the spin Maxwell put on a classic love story. Though I wasn’t satisfied with the resolution and Jacopo was just a little too stereotypically “sinister” for my tastes, Maxwell’s mastery of language was compelling — and I would definitely give her books another shot in the future.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451229150 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

10 thoughts on “Book review: ‘O, Juliet’ by Robin Maxwell

  1. I have had a copy of this book for months, and still have not read it. While I did not read the spoiler paragraph, I did read most of the rest. I’ll experiment, and see what I think.


    • Sounds good, Robby — if you do read it, I would love to hear your perspective! It wasn’t bad by any stretch; just . . . I don’t know. I’m still undecided in many ways, I guess.


  2. I’m not sure if I will read this, but my daughter is obsessed with Romeo and Juliet, as most teenagers are. All that drama and angst you know. In your opinion, is it appropriate for teens? Does it have alot of language or sex?


    • Definitely no bad language, Sandy, and not a tremendous amount of sex — you know, beyond the consummation of Romeo and Juliet’s union (but of course!). But it’s not graphic or a central part of the plot. It’s more about the romance of it all.


  3. Well, here’s a confession. I don’t really care for Romeo & Juliet. I was one of those English geeks in High School who took the Shakespeare class and again in college and R&J just never worked for me. It always seemed a little too melodrama for me. So, I guess I’ll be taking a pass on this one.


  4. I totally feel you on this one! It felt so unfair that the end wasn’t, like, a surprise twist about how the Shakespearean ending came to be … or something. Le sigh.


  5. Have you read “Jane” by April Lindner yet? it’s a modern retelling of Jane Eyre and I really liked it. It is a recent publication. “Imagine if Jane Eyre fell in love with a rock star” is the tag line….


  6. I’ve never found Romeo and Juliet to be a “romantic” love story, but I’m really interested by the way Maxwell chose to retell the story, with older lovers. I read “Signora da Vinci” from her and really enjoyed her take on history!


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