Juliet’s Answer weaves three stories into one memoir by a Canadian English teacher who answers letters posted to Juliet in Verona. The letters speak of love, loss, questions, heartbreak and loneliness and most writers only want someone to listen. The ladies (and one man, our author) who answer the letters don’t try to solve problems or cure misery, they simply acknowledge the writer’s heartfelt cry.
Glenn Dixon volunteers in Verona because he too has a decision to make, whether to continue to hope that the woman he loved for many years will finally turn to him as more than a friend or look elsewhere. Dixon tells this first story in small vingettes scattered through the book.
Dixon teaches Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to high school students to capture their attention and get them to think. He believes that the characters’ ages – so close to those of his students – will help them see the play as real, not as yet another boring book to read in class and then forget. Dixon explores Verona while there and visits the sites where the real people behind Shakespeare’s story lived and died and are buried. He puzzles why Juliet’s story so resonates that even today people write her letters of grief and want. That is the second story.
The third story is Dixon’s students. As Glenn teaches his students the play he too learns about love and loss and his students are perceptive enough to realize this. Others get interested in the play (despite their aversion to classical literature) and are fascinated by the two young lovers.
One student, a 16 year old Moslem girl, cries quietly in class. Dixon worries about her – she is an excellent student who wants to go to college – and discovers her father is pressuring her to marry a much older man, drop out of school and forego her plans for college. Glenn and the other teachers are a bit flummoxed as they simultaneously want to respect her family’s culture yet protect the girl and help her realize her dreams, not her father’s dream. They tactfully help and the girl is able to resolve the problem with her father.
Juliet’s Answer is subtitled “One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak” and it is a biography/memoir. Author Dixon writes of extremely personal matters, his feelings for the woman he wants, his despair because she sees him only as a friend, his uncertainty answering some of the letters, his drive to teach and educate his students, to help them grow up. I don’t know whether any of the characters are masked or are included under their real names.
Dixon writes in an easy, unaffected manner. This is hard to do with such a personal, emotionally difficult topic! Had this been a YA fiction we would have had drama and heartburn, not Dixon’s quiet misery and sense of loss. Juliet’s Answer was a far better book with its adult style and realistic sense of intimacy. (I would like some of the breathless, over-the-top YA authors to read this and see how to treat love and loneliness so we can feel right along with the characters.)
I enjoyed Juliet’s Answer, especially the sections where Dixon is teaching his students. I was never a big fan of the Romeo and Juliet story but Dixon made it lively and helped his students understand how Shakespeare wrote such that we still read him 400 years later.
The book could have been painful to read with its self-revelations; we could have felt as though we were tromping through Dixon’s life and heart, but he did a very good job maintaining a sense of privacy even when sharing personal feelings.
The ending seemed a bit out of character and not as satisfying as the rest of the stories but it still worked and brought the book to its conclusion.
I received an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.