Juliet, Anne Fortier

Ballantine Books, 2011, 461 pages (paperback)

Sigh. Sometimes all a girl needs is a proper romance novel. And you’ll remember this one from my fall TBR, meaning I had high hopes for it. The good news is that I wasn’t let down. While Juliet definitely falls  into the romance category, it could also easily be called a mystery, thriller, or historical fiction, which is what I like most about it.

Both plots – yes, there are two – are twisty and complicated. One follows our modern-day American heroine, Julie Jacobs who, along with her twin sister Janice, was orphaned by shady circumstances roughly twenty years ago when their family lived in Italy. Upon the event of their great-aunt Rose’s death, Julie is let in on a family secret, leading her back to Siena, Italy to do some major digging. Breaking up the progression of this plot line, is that of Giulietta Tolomei, a young country girl living in Siena in 1340, and her quick and ill-fated romance with one Romeo Marescotti. Six-hundred years apart, the two story lines nevertheless begin to intertwine in the most fascinating and page-turning ways.  To quote an interesting character: “Everything we say is a story. But nothing we say is just a story.” What’s real and what’s legend are frequently conflated.What follows is a lot of intrigue, treasure hunting, chase scenes, not quite knowing who to trust, and plenty of gasping and shouting from the reader (that is, if you’re as interactive with your novels as I am). With chapters flip-flopping back and forth between the two ‘Juliet’s, I was kept on the edge of my seat for the entire 450-or-so pages. I have a few minor complaints, but on the whole this is prime escapist fiction, perfect for anyone who enjoys a modern departure from classic Shakespeare. Without giving away endings (because you will be guessing till the end), the story, while feeling comfortingly familiar, is at the same time new.

Wherefore Art Thou, Perfect Screen Adaptation?

Romeo and Juliet through the (recent) ages.

I await the day that Fortier’s Juliet will be turned into film. The book, being so cinematic, is a natural candidate for a major female-driven blockbuster. And, forgive me if you disagree, but haven’t we enough straight-forward film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet? In tenth grade my English class was introduced to the 1968 version, already begging comparisons to the modernized Leo-tastic version of ’96 which we were more familiar with. Now, apparently with a new generation arose the need for yet another, and so we have the 2013 version released last month (which, I’ll admit, I will watch and probably love). To me it’s puzzling and a little pathetic that, even despite all these versions turning out the same, I always hope for a less-tragic ending. Does anyone out there feel the same way?

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The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989, 288 pages

The amazing first edition cover

The Joy Luck Club is a beautiful portrait of four Chinese women and each of their American-born daughters. The four mothers make up the Joy Luck Club, a regular meeting where they eat special foods, tell stories, and play mahjong. The book is comprised of sixteen short, intersecting stories, in four parts. Tan apparently chose this structure to reflect a mahjong game – which I believe is an indication of her ability to build around a theme.

And the themes of this book are easily recognized, as mothers and daughters ask such questions as: where did I come from? Which part of my heritage determines who I am? What is my story, and what can I learn by telling it? What can I learn from listening?

Storytelling as a familial necessity seems a part of all of Tan’s novels. Even as many of her characters ask questions after it’s too late, it’s often their search for answers that ends up shaping their identity.

The biggest challenge I found in reading Joy Luck was keeping track of who was who. Eight main characters is a lot, and I often had to flip back to the front page, where each mother-daughter pair was listed. Even though it seemed like an extra effort, it was interesting to see how carefully Tan used the mothers’ stories to inform the daughters’ observations about how they were raised. Each story was strong as a stand-alone. I have my favourites, but I can’t think of a single vignette that was anything short of awesome.

From director Wayne Wang, 1993

From director Wayne Wang, 1993

Tan’s ability to put complex human problems in such plain (and often stark) language is amazing to read. On the other hand, when she aims to describe something, it’s done in stunning detail. This author’s real talent is always finding the right balance.

If you haven’t read any of Amy Tan’s works, and if you’re interested in anything relating to China, immigrant families, or the female relationships within them, I highly recommend you start with this book. In 1993, The Joy Luck Club was made into a film, which is also really good. But for the simple pleasure of great storytelling, you should do yourself a favour and read it first.

Let me know what you think!

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

The Borrowers is a short book about very tiny people, so I’m going to make this a very tiny review.

Pod and Homily Clock, and their adolescent daughter, Arrietty, are the last of the Borrowers living in their Victorian-era mansion. After a series of accidents, other families such as the Harpsichords and Overmantels have been forced to emigrate. Then one day Pod decides to introduce Arrietty to the art of “borrowing”: that is, stealing things from the humans, which they can then use for their own homemaking purposes. (Stamps become posters, buttons are plates, spools are chairs, blotting paper is carpeting…you get the picture.) But then the unthinkable happens when Arrietty is “seen”! That’s right – their very existence is something kept secret from the humans, and now it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next.

Original illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush.

This classic children’s book won the Carnegie Medal for Literature in 1952. Even as an adult, I really enjoyed it. Had this been read to me as a kid I would surely have been swept up into Arrietty’s world and continued with the series. There’s something magical about the story, though it doesn’t “feel” like fantasy. It actually feels very believable. On a basic level, I think it says some important things about discrimination, fear of the unknown, and family values.

The North American movie poster for the 2010 anime.

The bonus is that there are now several television and movie adaptations of the books, all with something different to offer. The 1992 BBC television series is a rigorously faithful adaptation. The 2011 (also BBC) production takes numerous liberties while keeping the fun spirit of the novel. There’s even a Japanese-animated version! So whatever you or your kid is into, there’s probably something out there to please you. Now hop to it! Start discovering the little people for yourself!

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

It’s 1913, and a four-year-old girl is found on a wharf in Australia, having come across in a boat from England. All she has in her possession is a small white suitcase, and a curious illustrated book of fairy tales. She is soon taken in by a loving family, who fail to ever solve the mystery of where she came from. Years later, “Nell” goes on a journey to find the missing pieces of her history. Thus comes together a rich, complex story line featuring three prominent female voices, sprinkled here and there with delightful fairy tales and other’s points of view.

Quite honestly, though I enjoyed this book and would give it a solid 3 stars out of 5, The Forgotten Garden took a good 100 pages for me to really get into. Here’s the conundrum: sometimes the promise of a story, the feel and look of the actual book, don’t quite live up to the tale itself. I was confused by the back-and-forth narrative the author uses to tell her story – first we’re in 1913, then we jump to the ’60s, then we’re in 2005. And then there’s the innumerable cast of supporting characters to contend with! Once I got acquainted with these things, however, I was able to sink into the story a bit more. I loved the “scrapbooky” feel of the book as a whole. As a lover of folklore, myths, and children’s stories, I really appreciated the interspersed fairy tales. Not only did they help connect the three timelines running throughout the book (they were not idly placed); they were beautiful and symbolic in their own right. It was also fun to imagine the illustrations that were described as going along with them. I found myself wishing the book of fairy tales really did exist!

Now, the part of my review where I reveal my biggest complaint. Maybe this is just me, since I’m obviously a fan of The Secret Gardenbut there was something a bit cheeky about how Morton chose to rip off certain details of the original garden classic. Like The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden featured an orphan being taken into a big manor inhabited by her creepy uncle, and her subsequent discovery of a walled garden that offers healing to her sickly cousin. Incidently I would have no problem with the recycling of these plot points (even the robin that led her to it!), should a fictionalized version of Frances Hodgson Burnett herself not make an appearance in the book! As it turns out, the author is invited to a garden party at the manor, and gets all inspired. In fact, we’re led to believe that her experience at this party leads her to write The Secret Garden. In a word…audacious.

All objections aside, this is a good book. Despite the halted start, I don’t want to slam an author who’s skilled at weaving a good plot line and ultimately able to keep my attention for 500-plus pages. I’ll put in a good word on behalf of those people I know who adored this book – your adoration is not unfounded, and I will likely be reading other Morton books in future.

The Virgin Blue, Tracy Chevalier

Plume, 2003

I know I’ve already mentioned how much I adore Chevalier’s books, so I’ll try to keep this one short!

Her first book, The Virgin Blue features two stories in parallel. One centres around a 16th-century French woman, Isabelle du Moulin, who clings to her Catholic faith even though all those around her, including those in her own family, have converted to Protestantism. Her husband is cruel and psychologically manipulative from the start, and her story is one heavily shrouded in superstition and suspicion. Then there is Ella Turner, a modern-day American woman who moves to Lisle-sur-Tarn, a small town in southernwestern France, with her husband. Ella struggles to find her identity in France, a big part of which involves digging into her family’s extensive history there. The result is an interesting connection between the two women who lived centuries apart.

That’s the bare bones of it, and I must say I enjoyed the general story. It was obvious to me, however, that Chevalier was still green at the time of her writing this book. There were several themes which she stuck to faithfully throughout the story – marriage, happiness, religion and spiritual tradition, dreams and superstition – these are all things both women battle throughout. But then there were things thatseemedshould be important, but weren’t – Ella’s interest in bringing her midwifery to France, for example, really doesn’t play out in the story, a detail the author seems to have forgotten about half way through. There were also several minor characters who didn’t have to be there. On top of it all, the ending was plain confusing. Tension started building near the end of the story, and it was paced so beautifully (a skill Chevalier has only improved upon since). But then it all seemed to end in two pages! Bam! – there’s the ending. Deal with it. It left me jilted, and I had to remind myself that the book in its entirety really was better than the feeling it ultimately left me with.

I stand by my claims that Chevalier is one of those rare, naturally-gifted writers. This may not have been her best attempt, but for a first novel it’s fine. Everyone needs a moment to find their footing, and this was that. It only gets better from here.

Stuck In Neutral, Terry Trueman

My sister recommended this book after having it assigned at school (she goes to college, but I know this book is also assigned to younger high schoolers). “It’ll take you a day, and it’s worth it,” she promised me. True on both accounts!

HarperTempest, 2000

Our protagonist, 14-year-old Shawn, on top of being extremely smart, also has an extreme disability. Though his mind functions normally, Cerebral Palsy (C.P.) fully controls his body. He is in no way able to control his muscles, from his arms and legs, to his tongue, to his eyes. He can’t blink on command, can’t swallow when he wants to, can’t make a single voluntary sound. That means he is unable to communicate – and it has effectively kept his family and the rest of the world from knowing who he really is. To everyone on the outside, Shawn is a ‘vegetable’. And here’s the real problem: says Shawn, “I think my father is planning to kill me”. With no way to stop it, and no way to signal to his father that there’s a lively soul inside his useless body, Shawn is forced to watch as his father’s vague interest in euthanasia becomes an obsession.

Written by a man who has a son with severe C.P. (a boy much in the same position as Shawn), this was an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking read. In his author’s note, Trueman makes a point of saying no one will ever know if the vacancy we see in such highly disabled people is actually a sign that they are somehow ‘brain dead’, or if they’re fully aware and just can’t do anything to show it. That great unknown is what makes this work of fiction so heart-wrenching – it could be reflective of someone’s true experiences.

At 114 pages, and with an unforgettable character who has so much to say, there’s no reason for anyone not to read this book.