Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors

In case I haven’t confessed it, I love Shakespeare—like, really love Shakespeare. I read for Juliet in my freshman English class, I worked behind the scenes in my high school’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve been to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada twice, and I even performed as Prospero in a summer production of The Tempest (my cousin even played Ariel alongside me). William Shakespeare deserves all the renown he gets for writing some of the most honest-to-God beautiful language ever conceived. So when an author succeeds at making his stories more accessible to a teenage market, my nerdy fangirl heart glows brighter than the Verona sunshine.

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17-year-old Mimi Wallingford comes from a long line of Manhattan actors, which means she must continue her family’s legacy. Except Mimi would rather be a doctor than set another foot on her family’s threadbare stage, much to her mother’s overdramatic chagrin. But Mimi finds an unexpected escape one night, when some magic dust accidentally sends her and her heartthrob costar Troy into 1594 Verona. There, she makes an unexpectedly powerful friendship with Juliet Capulet herself, even though Mimi knows the young girl is doomed to suicide. But now, Mimi and Troy must figure out how to get home, without leading their new friends to tragedy.

This book combines some of my favorite story arcs: the fish-out-of-water story, modern characters being thrust into the past, and original characters making friends with established characters. It is so much fun watching Mimi and Troy figure out how to navigate a time as far removed from what they know as 1594. But it’s even more fun to watch them interact with characters that are so ingrained into the popular conscious. We all have preconceived notions of what Romeo and Juliet look like, whether because we have seen them onstage or on film. But here’s what the book does that I love most: it turns these characters we’re forced to read through English classes—characters whose speech you cannot always understand in the first read-through—into friends.

In school, I only initially connected to Juliet because she was one half of a beautifully spoken romance. But something I never really thought about (probably because she is almost never portrayed as such) was that she was thirteen—still a kid. She wasn’t just the graceful coiffed young woman you see everywhere. She could also be a rebellious, though still innocent, young girl who played troublesome tricks, and openly grimaced at marrying a man she didn’t love—again, a regular thirteen-year-old girl, not a poised lady.

It’s the same with Romeo. He is not just some dashing blade-thrusting hero, but rather an emotionally vulnerable boy with a heart big enough for the world; he is still shy, but will rise to the occasion if it means keeping an innocent from harm.

These characters are cleaned up and aged up so much in media that we forget they were just kids—kids in the throes of passionate young love. Here, Juliet is a mischievous tomboy, and Romeo is shy and sensitive—refreshing characterizations quite far removed from any previous incarnation.

But then, what about Mimi and Troy, the original characters among Shakespeare’s creations?

This book is a first-person recounting of Mimi’s adventure in Verona, so it is written with hindsight, but also lots of teenage snark. Mimi strikes the right balance between whiny and maternal, bratty and sensitive, especially during her scenes with Juliet. Troy, on the other hand, is the entitled idol swept along for the ride, who also strikes a good balance between hotheaded and gentle. They’re both fun characters to follow, and I kind of wish there was a sequel that could show them going on other adventures.

Like I said, my main draw to this book is how it breathes new life into a play that too easily polarizes high school audiences. It’s a story of adventure and romance, but it’s mostly a story of a bunch of kids, modern and Renaissance, learning to forge their own destinies and write their own stories.

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