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Book Review: Fair Rosaline by Natasha Solomons

Book Review: Fair Rosaline by Natasha Solomons

Natasha Solomons’ Fair Rosaline is the story of Romeo and Juliet, but not how you remember it. In this subversive retelling of Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy, we’re given the story from the point of view of Romeo’s dismissed and discarded lover Rosaline, and her experience weaves an altogether different kind of narrative. The result is a dark, powerful and thought-provoking novel that reimagines Shakespeare’s tragedy and gives its characters, their motivations and their actions a darker, more sinister new spin that’s both jarring and compelling, even if it’s not always for the reasons you’re expecting.

At the age of sixteen years old, Rosaline Capulet is headstrong, independent, and head over heels for Romeo Montague. After her mother dies of the plague that is sweeping through Verona and Rosaline learns of her father’s plans to send her to a nunnery, she’s desperate to experience as much life as possible in the time she has left before being sent away, even if it means donning a disguise to sneak into one of the Montagues’ famed wild parties. While there she meets Romeo, a handsome and charming stranger who instantly declares his love for her and promises to whisk her away from Verona, her father, and the life in the convent that soon awaits her.

Before long, however, Rosaline begins to doubt Romeo’s honeyed words and sweet promises, but when she breaks off the match she’s distraught to realise that Romeo has instead turned his attentions to her younger cousin Juliet. With her time in the city running out, Rosaline finds herself in a desperate race against the clock as Romeo and Juliet meet and their tragic story begins to unfold. With her cousin’s heart, reputation and life on the line, will Rosaline be able to save Juliet from Romeo, or is this a story that’s destined to only end in one way?

For a moment, she felt haunted by Romeo. This courtship didn’t feel like a joyous dance any longer: it was a pursuit, and she the prey.”

This is hardly the first time that a modern author has sought to give a voice to one of Shakespeare’s marginalised female characters. From Hamlet’s Ophelia to Lady MacBeth, storytellers have been challenging themselves to expand on the lives of these characters and give them more agency and depth within their own stories, often with varying results. Even Rosaline herself has previously received this treatment in the Hulu film adaptation Rosaline and Rebecca Serle’s 2012 young adult novel When You Were Mine. While the movie took a more romantic, comedic approach on the Shakespearean tale, Solomons’ Fair Rosaline tells a dark, more serious narrative, one that recasts Romeo as a more practiced seducer, and it offers an interesting new take on the well-known story.

Fair Rosaline is a very much a book of two parts; in the first half of the novel we see the story of Rosaline and Romeo’s whirlwind courtship, taking note of some very similar conversations, compliments and turns of phrases along the way. Here we get Rosaline’s own story, giving a character who is only spoken of in Shakespeare’s original play a voice of her own – and giving everything that follows an entirely new perspective. By the second half of the novel we’re in more familiar territory, only now we have the knowledge that Romeo isn’t actually the boy we’ve always believed him to be. After watching him seduce, disarm and discard Rosaline over the course of a few days, seeing him then turn his attentions onto Juliet is here rendered less of a passionate romance with a tragic end and more a horrifyingly inevitable tragedy in the making.

For the most part, this is very cleverly done. Solomons brings the world of Verona to life wonderfully, painting a visceral picture of the sights, sounds and smells of a Renaissance Italy, as well as the class and social dynamics and the courtly politics within it. Rosaline herself is an extremely empathetic character too, with a coming-of-age narrative that spans grief, love, lust, heartache and more. If she comes across as a little impulsive and naïve at times, then it only goes to underscore her youth and render the differences between her and the older, more experienced Romeo all the more stark. Between all of this, the chillingly plausible take on Romeo’s nature and the many nods and allusions to some of Shakespeare’s other plays too, there is a lot to unpick in Fair Rosaline and it offers up an entirely original and gripping reading experience.

For me, however, the problems come when we begin to encroach upon the Romeo and Juliet story itself, and Rosaline’s assumptions, interferences and actions become a little more difficult to accept if we’re expected to believe that the rest of the storyline is playing out as Shakespeare first told it. There are a few too many narrative leaps, linguistic inconsistencies and too much twisting of the story designed to justify this new ‘untelling’ for it to ring true here. Ultimately it ends up feeling just a little bit too contrived for it to flow naturally.

Still, Fair Rosaline is a complex and layered story that offers up a bold new take on the story of the star-crossed lovers, and it’s one that both committed and casual fans of the original play are sure to find fascinating. The extent to which Solomons is able to really sell this interpretation will, I think, come down to your love of the play and its characters, and this is a story that will inevitably spark a bit of debate among readers. In providing a new perspective to this story, however, Solomons has also breathed fresh life into a classic tale, exploring new character relationships, darker realities and the complexities of love, family and duty along the way.

It may not always be an easy read, or even an entirely immersive one, but Fair Rosaline is a subversive and riveting novel that challenges expectations and offers up a solid reimagining that undeniably turns the story of Romeo and Juliet firmly on its head.


Fair Rosaline was published by Manilla Press on 3 August 2023

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