For centuries, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has tugged at the public imagination, inspiring everything from West Side Story to Taylor Swift’s ”Love Story.” Now comes Anne Fortier’s Juliet, which grafts a romantic thriller about a modern woman seeking clues to her past onto a historical yarn about the origins of the Bard’s classic drama. In short, it aims to be a distaff version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, with a dash of A.S. Byatt’s Possession tossed in. It’s an impossible task, perhaps, but it’s to Fortier’s credit that the novel succeeds as well as it does.
Juliet centers on Julie Jacobs, an American who journeys to Siena to explore a mysterious inheritance. She discovers she’s a descendant of Giulietta Tolomei, the 14th-century woman who inspired Shakespeare’s heroine. As in any post?Da Vinci Code puzzle novel, Julie uses relics in her search: a ring, a painting, a banner, a dagger, and a medieval painter’s journal that yields much of the artfully reimagined historical backstory. She faces down a suspicious contessa and the contessa’s even more suspicious nephew, as well as mobsters, the police, and an alarming helmeted motorcyclist.
Fortier’s writing is on firm ground in the book’s historical passages. The modern section, by contrast, feels contrived, and the author resorts to more telling than showing to keep her plot zipping along at a Vespa-like pace. She also stoops to some sub-Harlequin prose, punctuating Julie and the nephew’s first kiss with this howler: ”It was as if the entire cosmos had undergone some exorbitant renovation since the last time I looked…” While Juliet has an undeniable appeal, I doubt that its virtues would smell as sweet but for the association with Shakespeare. What’s in a name? The difference between a merely promising debut novel and a possible best-seller. B?