Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Romeo and Juliet Code

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone first came to my attention on a post from Fuse 8.  The post was about historical fiction with covers that make them look more modern, or are outright anachronistic. The synopsis intrigued me.  It takes place in 1941 and has hints of codes and spies.  I will tell you that this review contains a major spoiler but I have put it at the end and give plenty of warning.  I will come right out and say I did not enjoy this book.  I can see it holding some appeal for the 8-10 year old female crowd who enjoy mystery and won't notice the emotional vacuum in the story.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Felicity's glamorous parents have a secret. When they leave her with distant relatives in Maine, Felicity hopes they won't leave her long. Her new Uncle Gideon hides things. Her Aunt Miami is star-crossed. And Derek, a kid her age, refuses to leave his room. But Felicity needs Derek's help. Gideon is getting coded letters from Felicity's parents, and she's sure they're in trouble. Can Felicity crack the code, heal the family and save her parents, all while surviving her first crush? It's a tall order, but - like THE SECRET GARDEN'S Mary Lennox before her - Felicity's up for the challenge.

A lot of my negative reaction to this book is because I am well and truly tired of the whole "kid is abandoned by parent(s) with obscure little known relatives and has to be brave and learn something" story.  So why did I read this?  Hope that eventually someone has to subvert the trope.  Hope that the mystery would be mysterious and intriguing.  Hope for a good examination of British/American relations and thoughts in 1941.  This book is sadly lacking in all of these. 

Despite what the synopsis implies Felicity is nothing like  Mary Lennox. Felicity is a hard character to like and almost impossible to empathize with.  She is twelve and still talks about her teddy bear as if he were a living being.  She doesn't cry into him at night whispering her secrets wishing he were real, she talks like he actually is real.  Which is why I think this book would be tough for anyone over the age of 10 to take seriously. And even 8-10 year olds might find their credulity being stretched.  Felicity has issues, no doubt. Her parents often left her on her own to go and do their own thing.  Her grandmother claims this is the reason she is immature.  I think she has issues that go beyond immaturity that more than cracking a spy code and finding a crush will fix, but this book is not that deep so the mystery and the boy do the trick  here.

But what annoyed me the most was the book's REVELATION, which I saw coming from the first chapter, but a child reader wouldn't.  That is not what bothers me about the revelation, it's what follows and here comes the spoiler:

Don't keep reading if you don't want to know the end.

It turns out that Felicity's father is actually her uncle and her Uncle Gideon is actually her father.  Felicity's mother was married for a few months to Gideon, left him and took with his brother, and then realized she was pregnant.  So Felicity grew up thinking her uncle was her dad.  Gideon reveals this to Felicity by the request of her mother toward the end of the book.  You would think that this would create some interesting scenes.  Felicity has to feel something genuinely human right? Anger. Betrayal. Distrust. Horror. Anguish. Disgust.  Sadness. ANYTHING.  But this is what we get:
"Perhaps it was something like wearing new shoes or having a completely new way of fixing your hair or having a new name or going to a new school or looking in the mirror and having a completely different air about you." actually.  It is not like any of those things.  She doesn't like Gideon in the beginning of the book because she senses he doesn't like her father.  She finds out this massively scandalous (it is 1941) reason why and compares it to a new hairstyle????? The passage does continue:
"Everything was changed. And I needed to time to let it all sift through me like beach sand as it falls through your fingers when you try to hold in in your hand."Ugh, the similes.  But more than that we are not given any idea what is sifting or how it is being sifted.  We are shown absolutely no emotion at all from Felicity.  She shares the news with Derek (the crush) who was an abandoned child taken into the family when he was one and given the same birthday as Felicity to celebrate.  His reaction:
"I always felt I was a stand-in, a replacement for somebody or something, and now I see, Flissy, it was you.  It was you I was standing in for.  That's why we have the same birthday. That's why and how I came to live here. And it was a lucky thing for me, you know that?"Most people would have at least a little trouble with the concept that they were a replacement for someone who no longer needed replacing.  

The emotional vapidity of the novel made it impossible for me to enjoy, but others, particularly in elementary school, may be able to look past that.

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