Romeo and Juliet is a love story with a tragic ending, but what if there was more to the tale? In The Hundred Loves of Juliet, Evelyn Skye turns to Shakespeare’s well-known play as a starting point for an all-new kind of tragic romance, and what unfolds is an emotional journey of grief, loss and love in almost every kind of way.
In the middle of a divorce and desperate for an escape, 30-year-old Helen Janssen impulsively books a flight to Alaska, dreaming of a quiet, remote place to finally start work on the novel that’s been building in her head since she was a teenager. What she doesn’t expect is to walk into the local bar shortly after her arrival and come face to face with the man she imagined as the romantic hero in all of her past stories; a man with the same name, same appearance and same characteristics she had dreamed up so long ago and fallen in love with along the way.
Sebastien Montague thought that things would be different this time, but when Helene walks up to him and declares that she knows him despite never having met before, he’s horrified to realise that his fate has caught up to him once again. Because before he was Sebastien, he was Romeo and Helene was Juliet. In the years since their first meeting, Romeo and Juliet have met, fallen in love, and enjoyed a blissful time together for however long fate will let them before Juliet dies tragically, and Romeo is left to live with the grief and pain until the cycle restarts once again. Now that Sebastien and Helene have met again in this life, it’s not long before the shadows of the past soon emerge and the star-crossed lovers find that it won’t be so easy to rewrite the ending of the greatest love story of all time.
I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as free will, at least not when it concerns me and her. Perhaps soulmates are inevitable. Perhaps we can’t outmanoeuvre fate.”
The Hundred Loves of Juliet is, unsurprisingly, a story about love, and it is ultimately this novel’s greatest strength. Here we don’t just get one love story, we get a dozen; a dozen meet cutes that explore a dozen time periods and situations and relationships, and it’s enough romance to sway even the most cynical of hearts. Helene in particular is a vibrant, joyful, eternal optimist, and for her these love stories are happy fictions she’s dreamt up over time, always ending with the implicit understanding of a happy ever after to follow. It’s this optimism and Helene’s own determination to embrace every moment for what it is that provides a large part of the momentum of this novel, offering some much-needed light through all of Sebastien’s very understandable worry, fear and melancholy.
Because, of course, in this story and any other Romeo and Juliet story, we can’t have the romance without the tragedy, and grief plays a heavy role in this novel too. Helene may have dreamed up a dozen loves, but Sebastien has lived through a hundred losses and lived with the grief of his love dying over and over for seven hundred years. It makes sense that Sebastien is prone to seeing the worse in every situation and is wary of once again falling in love with a woman who is going to die and leave him alone with his grief likely sooner rather than later. There’s no denying that Sebastien’s versions of Helene’s love stories are full of pain and heartbreak and can be difficult to read as a result.
And much like the conflicting temperaments of its two leads, The Hundred Loves of Juliet also reads like a novel of two halves. In the first, Helene and Sebastien meet, and their new story unfolds alongside the memories of their past ones, creating a layered and intriguing narrative that compels the reader forward. By the halfway mark, however, it feels like the novel loses some of its direction, and the magic and the mystery is exchanged for endless narrative loops about the curse, the likelihood of its breaking and hopes/fears for the future. As the novel continues, we swap a unique premise, interesting characters and all of that narrative magical realism for caricatured villains, unremarkable goons and a final conflict that wouldn’t feel out of place in a spy movie, while the idea of the ‘curse’ too, already quite tenuous to begin with, fizzles out with no real explanation and leaves the reader with more questions than answers by the end of the novel.
Even so, this is ultimately a heartfelt story that’s filled with love and grief in equal measure. It’s underscored with the hopeful message of living for the moment and embracing joy, positivity and happiness whenever possible, even when life throws difficult situations, loss and hardship your way.
If you pick up The Hundred Loves of Juliet looking for a romantic fantasy novel that directly connects a modern day Romeo and Juliet to their original counterparts in new and exciting ways, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed here. Instead, this is less a story of warring families, impulsive decisions and passionate first love, and more a story about soulmates, fated love and the cycle of love and loss through the ages where the story of Romeo and Juliet was just the beginning.
The Hundred Loves of Juliet was published by Headline on 1 August 2023