Onyx, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-40997-3
Contemporary Fiction, 2001 (Reissue)
Julie and Romeo is one of the funniest and most romantic reads I’ve had so far this year, and it isn’t marketed as a romance novel. Of course, you could argue that who the heck wants to be a romance author, what with all the credibility-free stigma attached to the tag, but there are also other elements in this story that would mark its immediate descend into the reject bin should it fall into the hands of a romance editor: the main characters are in their sixties, and they actually have sex. It doesn’t cater to the lowbrow philosophy that romance readers are all about intoxicating escapism and look-ism and that they will shriek if someone over thirty gets naked.
Okay, I didn’t mean this to be a soapbox about romance novel shallowness, but I can’t help feeling that this book only highlights all that is wrong about the romance genre at the moment: this novel is all about romance and relationships, while the romance genre seems to be all about rescue fantasies. And when the main characters in this slim 241-paged novel rings truer than anything in the romance genre I’ve read recently, I think there’s something definitely wrong in the romance genre.
It’s sad, but it seems we are letting great books unpublished or sold off in another genre when these books could have helped the genre gain some credibility, all in favor for shallow “Let’s put in two sex scenes and call it a romance novel, ay!” books that sell.
Anyway, the story. It’s a take on the Romeo and Juliet thing, of course. Only this time around, rival florists Julie Roseman and Romeo Cacciamani have no idea why their families are feuding. Both are in their sixties now, and meet one day at a small business improvement seminar. Sparks fly, much to the horror of their children. Julie is slowly pulling her life together after her husband fled the coop, while Romeo is getting over the memory of his late wife. It’s a second chance at love for these two geezers, but what about the kids?
Sure, those kids should stay out of their parents’ sex and love lives, right? But particularly Julie’s daughter Sandy is resentful, because Sandy once loved young Tony Cacciamani, but Julie and Romeo ruthlessly tore them apart. Now it’s, well, not exactly payback, but maybe emotional retribution time.
Told from Julie’s perspective, Julie and Romeo manages to be poignant and funny all at once. The humor is wry but low-key, which I feel is the most effective type of funny. She is flabbergasted when she finds Romeo a nice-looking guy. Oh dear, is this midlife crisis? But Romeo just keep persisting. He keeps calling and knocking at her window.
And then Romeo Cacciamani did something truly miraculous. He leaned over and he kissed me. It was just on my lower lip at first, and then my upper lip. Little kisses and after each one he’d pull away from me like it was over, that was it, but then he would come back for more. He put his hands on my face and ran his thumbs beneath my eyes, then he kissed my eyelids, first right, then left, then my forehead, and then the part of my hair. This was the part no one told me while they discussed the evils of the Cacciamanis. No one said they were such good kissers. I was dreaming, sinking, swimming in a warm dark river of kissing, kissing hands and chins, every kiss soft. I could smell the soap on his skin and the fabric softener in his undershirt. I could smell his hair and taste his mouth, which still tasted like sake and rice. Oh Romeo, this makes it all worthwhile, all those nights of working late and coming home alone, crying over the books and the roses that came in with brown spots on every petal, the worrying about Sandy and Nora and the children, the anger at Mort, the missing my parents, all of it lifted off of me and was washed back by the sea of tender kissing, maybe not forever but for now, and frankly, what else was there? I was lighter in that moment. I was my best self, loving and gentle and kind. It was so good to see that woman again, so good to hold another person in this way and be held. If a giant asteroid fell on us at that moment, parked in a car at the end of my block, the touch of Romeo Cacciamani’s tongue against my teeth, mine would be counted as a happy life, a good life.
Julie is a spunky, witty character who is also intelligent and made silly by love all at once. Seeing her going dizzy as if she is a teenager again all over Romeo is funny and heartwarming all at once.
However, I find that late into the story when Julie’s daughters and Romeo’s sons hijack the story, things go downhill slightly. The author keeps saying that no one knows why these people are fighting, and frankly, I could guess at the reason early on (it’s nothing new to those familiar with Romeo and Juliet retellings), and hence these kids are just silly. They are in their 30s now. Get. Over. It. Sandy is the only one who has an excuse to be bitter, and everyone else is just plot device to cause conflict for Romeo and Julie.
Still, I love this book. It’s short, but at the end of the day, reading it feels like a long, long time. I find myself sitting back and smiling stupidly at the window, feeling as if I’ve had one of those most wonderful, draining “Oh my God, that is fabulous!” experiences of my life. Julie and Romeo may not be prime “realism” – don’t look too hard for crooked knees and arthritis and erectile dysfunctions et cetera here – but it is surely a prime romantic read.