…these hot days is the mad blood stirring…
These words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have always made me think that Romeo and Juliet’s frenzied, wildly hopeful, passionate, and fateful/fatal love affair would have been a different story if it was set in a cold climate. Not that there isn’t probably a wintery version of the story out there. Romeo and Juliet has captivated audiences for centuries with its universal themes of forbidden love, loyalty, and family pride.
The book adaptation of West Side Story is consistently on the summer reading list in my library’s community, which may be another reason I’ve been thinking of the theme of star-crossed love in literature and the way this eternal story has been used to reflect current culture. West Side Story tells the story through the clash between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Polish-American Jets in 1950s New York city. Fifty years later, new adaptations present thoughtful, challenging, and very current twists on the classic theme.
In If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (available August 2013), Sahar is a teenager living in Iran, dedicated to her widowed father, her studies and hopes for entry to medical school, and her best friend Nasrin, with whom she has been in love since she was six years old. But in Iran, their love is illegal. If it were discovered they could be imprisoned or even executed. The stakes are raised when Nasrin’s family announces her engagement to Reza, a handsome doctor who seems like a brilliant match for their daughter. Sahar is broken-hearted, and it is the tenacity of her love that both leads to the central contradiction of the story and gives its universal appeal, because Sahar learns that while homosexuality is illegal in Iran, gender re-assignment surgery is not only legal, but even funded by the government. To be a man trapped in a woman’s body is viewed as nature’s mistake. To love Nasrim openly, would Sahar sacrifice who she is?
The beauty of this story is not just in the bittersweet love at its center, but also in the depiction of modern life in Tehran. The ways that laws are bent, coupled with the fear of consequences, is something that most teens can relate to. But it also opens a window on a part of the world that teens are most likely to know through news headlines that don’t offer much insight on what everyday life is like. I was lucky to hear Farizan speak at Book Expo America, and the research that she did in Tehran, and that telling this story means she may not be able to return to a country where she still has family, is as brave as the actions her characters pursue in the name of their love.
Another interesting and visually compelling adaptation is the new graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet created by Gareth Hinds (available September 2013), which features a multi-racial cast in historic Verona. When I had the chance to ask Hinds why he chose Romeo and Juliet and what led to his visual interpretation, he stated, “I chose a multi-racial cast because I wanted to reflect how universal the story is and give modern urban kids of diverse backgrounds more reason to relate to it. As to why I chose [Romeo and Juliet] in the first place, it’s one of the all-time greatest works of literature, and one of the most taught in schools — and I really love the poetry of Shakespeare’s rhymed verse in this play, as well as the bawdy humor and the sword-fighting.” Sword fighting remains as universally cool as forbidden love.
Finally, there is Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska, it tells the story of Park, whose half-Korean heritage and love of punk music and comics makes him a bit of an outsider in his neighborhood. His life changes the day the Eleanor steps onto his school bus and he shares his seat with her. Eleanor is big and red-haired, dresses in thrift store men’s clothing, and seems to fit in even less than Park. She lives on the edge of poverty and danger with a toxic stepfather, a mother who has faded into a shell, and a crew of younger siblings that she can do little to protect. It’s a love story that unspools slowly, genuinely, and is self-aware enough to poke fun at the idea of the Romeo And Juliet star-crossed tropes. In some ways, it really is the opposite of that story, because with deep feeling and sincerity, Rowell has created characters and a relationship that are not only utterly believable, but also validate the importance of teen relationships. It has no dramatic love triangles. It is not a cautionary tale. It does not dismiss falling in love before your get your driver’s license as something that teens wil grow out of or that ultimately will be dismissed as puppy love. Rather, it shows how truly important the first person you love can be to the person you ultimately become, and that relationship can sometimes be the best thing happening in a teenage life. I think that the real way it turns the idea of star-crossed love on its head is that rather than being an example of teens who would die for each other, it shows that the person you love in high school can actually save your life.
Have you read any other great star-crossed romances? New twists are showing up in every genre, from zombies to contemporary realistic fiction. With the topic of love and marriage so prominent in the recent news, I think it is great that we have such a variety of fictional portraits helping teens to see themselves in these relationships, to help them think about what love means to them, and to show the many ways that love can overcome obstacles.
— Mia Cabana, currently reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
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