Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The Romeo and Juliet Code

by Phoebe Stone
Arthur A. Levine Books (January 2011)
Ages 9 and up

First of all, please ignore the cover of Phoebe Stone's The Romeo and Juliet Code. Its contemporary teen love story vibe simply does not do this book justice. For one thing, the story takes place during WWII. For another thing, if it's a love story, then I completely missed this fact. What it is, however, is one heck of a well-narrated tale of family secrets and wartime intrigue. (And yes, there's a crush in there, too, but it's nothing like what the cover suggests.)

The novel opens just as eleven-year old Felicity Bathburn Budwig arrives at her grandmother's moody, broody home on the coast of Maine after having been spirited away from bomb-torn London by her American father and British mother. They leave her there to be watched over by a troubled uncle, despairing aunt, secretive grandmother and a resident known only as Captain Derek who never leaves his room. The Romeo and Juliet Code riffs on works by Frances Hodgson Burnett—The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which Felicity becomes an authority on—and, while it has the same sort of English orphan feeling of abandonment and hidden truths going for it, it doesn't delve as deeply into matters of healing and transformation that The Secret Garden does.

More than anything, it's the voice of Felicity that makes this book work. She's smart, articulate, and wonderfully unreliable in her misinterpreted memories of Danny and Winnie (her parents). The reader, of course, suspects what Felicity's parents have been involved with long before she does, which makes the narration all the more engaging. If only her inability to recall and interpret the past had been set up a little better, I could have bought the fact that she didn't know what was going on. The fact that she assumes her parents will return soon is hard to understand, considering that she arrives in May and her mother leaves her with a letter that's to be given to her uncle at Christmastime. Trauma can explain a lot when it comes to a character's denial, but I found I had to create my own justification in order to keep believing that she was so slow to tumble.

My other issue is that the ending would have happened no matter what Felicity did or didn't do. Although her actions affected a couple sub plots (her lonely aunt and mysterious Captain Derek), she was primarily uncovering secrets that (and this may be a spoiler) would have been revealed anyway. Her growth is more of an acceptance, and that would have come in time regardless.

Despite all that, I still liked the book a lot and would recommend it to readers who love to be immersed in moody settings, secrets and wartime mysteries.

Source: I borrowed this book from the library. The real one.

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