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Star-Crossed Lovers Get A Makeover In 'Juliet'

The Bard is rolling in his grave -- and according to novelist Anne Fortier, that's a good thing. Her retelling of Romeo and Juliet is a contemporary fairy tale that mixes medieval and modern mystery -- a time-shifting, semi-historical maze that unravels the "unknown" story of the feuding families in fair Verona.

Fortier's protagonist, 25-year-old Julie Jacobs, inherits a key to a safety deposit box in Siena, Italy -- where she travels under her birth name, Giulietta Tolomei. She quickly discovers an ongoing feud between the Tolomeis and other powerful families in Siena. They have been at each other's throats since the 14th century.

A bronze statue of Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet stands below what is said to be the balcony of her house in Verona, Italy. As a child, Fortier made trips to the landmark with her mother.
Maurizio Lapira / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A bronze statue of Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet stands below what is said to be the balcony of her house in Verona, Italy. As a child, Fortier made trips to the landmark with her mother.

Fabled Family Feuds

Fortier's own fascination with Shakespeare's love story started early, with childhood trips to Verona. "My mother used to live in Verona when she was young," Fortier tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "So we'd go to Verona a lot and visit Juliet's balcony and touch her statue -- which you're supposed to do when you're there -- and see her grave and so on."

Fortier was shocked to learn that the first telling of Romeo and Juliet's story was apparently not set in Verona at all -- and it wasn't written by Shakespeare. It was set in Siena, written by Italian poet Masuccio Salernitano and published in 1476 -- well over 100 years before Shakespeare's fabled tragedy.

Julie unravels the history of her ancestor, the original Giulietta Tolomei, and meets descendants of the rival Salimbeni family. Fortier uses her character's journey to explore the way in which Romeo and Juliet's story might have actually happened.

The author argues that the love story was inspired by historical events. In modern day Siena, the biannual Palio horse race is characterized by competitions between rival contrade, or wards, throughout city. "It very much resembles what you imagine as having been those old family feuds," Fortier says.

And, Fortier says, the truce between the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis is a historical fact. In 1337, a massacre between the two families forced the local government of Siena to intervene, and the two families were coerced into signing a peace agreement. The author notes that this uneasy truce mirrors the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

'Not Weighed Down By Research'

Though Fortier is inspired by Romeo and Juliet's legacy, Juliet is intentionally light on historical research and more focused on applying the love story to the modern day. As Julie Jacobs investigates who might have murdered her parents, she meets long lost relatives in Siena, who suggest that there might be a curse on her family, and the members of the feuding family in Siena ... a pox on both their houses, if you will.

Fortier says she loves books that span two different time periods -- and admires authors who set novels in both the past and the present. But she says that she sometimes finds accounts of the past "a little boring, because the author's been doing so much research."

When Fortier set out to write her book, she knew she "would have to make it really action-packed," she explains, "not weighed down by research, but pulled together by action and plot and love and fear -- and all those emotions that make us want to turn to the next page."

When Juliet was published in Denmark, it was criticized for its liberal interpretation of the legendary love story. Fortier says that critics slammed the idea of her book, rather than the book itself.

"If [the Bard is] turning in his grave, it's mostly to see what kind of snobs keep saying that you cannot mix [the] commercial and literary," she says. "Because that's what he was fantastic at doing, and that's why he's so famous still today."

Fortier -- who comfortably self-identifies as a "Dane, turned American ... taking poor Shakespeare hostage in her shameless Dan Brown-esque endeavors" -- doesn't much care what the critics think. Her novel went on to become a bestseller in Denmark.

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NPR Staff
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