Taking on the Bard is no mean feat; Shakespeare's work has become so ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness (whether or not we've ever actually read him) that iconic characters like Romeo and Juliet seem, well, untouchable.
This is partially why Robin Maxwell's new novel O JULIET is so interesting. It takes some chutzpah to clamber onto this particular ledge and she wisely doesn't attempt to re-write Shakespeare's tale. Instead, she utilizes the underpinnings of the famous play as a springboard to deliver an exuberant and at times shamelessly romantic story of first love, as told through the lovers' eyes. She also returns the story to its historical roots by setting it in Florence. However, she selects Florence under the Medici, where Mafia-like techniques co-existed alongside the Renaissance's intoxication with classical antiquity, infusing the story with the era's quioxtic passion and violence.
Juliet dominates the narrative, the daughter of a silk merchant contemplating with distaste, as no doubt did most girls of her era, an arranged marriage. Juliet is best friends with Lucrezia Tornabuoni, a proper Florentine girl about to wed into the Medici clan. At a banquet to celebrate the nuptials, Juliet dances with a virile youth in a wolf mask; soon, they find themselves exchanging barbed bits of Dante and getting that warm oozy feeling we've all have experienced at least once in our lives. Maxwell's Juliet is brash and rebellious; more intriguingly, she's an aspiring poet and Dante-obsessed, and her aspirations clash with her family's expectations of her. Romeo, on the other hand, is everything Romeo should be, including demonstrating a streak of testosterone-driven recklessness that gets him into serious trouble.
In Maxwell's novel, they are truly first-time lovers, smitten with desire and flown on the hyperbole of their hearts, unaware they're careening toward danger. Maxwell excels at depicting the excesses Romeo and Juliet feel for each other, as well as the lengths they're willing to go to indulge them. She brings 15th century Florence alive, particularly a night climb to the Duomo, and evokes the immortal joy and tragedy of youth in an unapologetic paean to a love that transcended death.