Review: When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle. Simon Pulse, 2012. Currently Available

Genre: Retelling, Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Face Value: Quite sincerely, this is probably my least favorite cover on a book I’ve read this year. Which is a shame, because the book deserves better! Something Shakespeare-y maybe? Something about feuding families? I think I’d even take a headless girl in a fancy dress over this awkward stagey makeout session. At no point in this story does anyone close their eyes and touch noses.  This is a good book – it deserves better cover art.

Does it break the slate? Yes and no. It’s not that it’s anti-Slatebreaking, but its not shattering anything either. This book takes a contemporary look at a tired story that is not, in and of itself, Slatebreaking and gives us a new point of view with great female characters. Rose is recognizable both in her heartbreak and her ability to ultimately take care of herself and move forward with her life. But at the same time, a lot of that happiness is still wrapped up in being with a guy.

Who would we give it to? Last year I had the privilege of teaching a drama class with middle school students in which we read Romeo and Juliet together and then “deconstructed” the story, turning it into a totally new, contemporary play. The Rosaline character had a much bigger role in our play than she did here – in the translation to the contemporary this brushed-aside character was profoundly interesting. Since R&J is more or less required reading at some point in secondary education, this contemporary rendition that gives Rosaline full focus is bound to attract interest.

Review: Here’s the thing. If the obviously brilliant and hyper-canonical William Shakespeare hadn’t written Romeo and Juliet as a play in the late 16th century but instead a young female writer had written the exact same plotline as a novel in the 21st century, publishers would have slapped a headless girl in a fancy dress on that book and marketed it as YA. And under those circumstances, it wouldn’t have been thought of as quality literature, but instead mocked as Twilight-bait for the masses.

Because here is the 3 sentence plot summary of R&J: A teenage boy likes a girl who doesn’t like him back so he goes to a party where he sees a pretty girl who does like him back. Their parents don’t approve so they fall instantly in love. Within three days they are married and dead. I mean come on! Even Edward and Bella didn’t get married until the fourth book! Even if, I guess, yes, they do end up dead in the end, kind of.   It’s about a 13 year old and a 16 year old who make some reckless choices, and somehow it’s turned into the contemporary cliché of what romance ought to be like.

Plus, I’ve always thought Rosaline didn’t get her due.

Rebecca Serle does a good job of balancing the “rules” so to speak of the Shakespeare play with the reality of teenagers in Southern California. It’s always clear what the source material is, but we’re getting a new story here. Rosaline is a popular Southern California teenager with great friends, loving parents, a bright future and a developing romance with her childhood best friend Rob. Then her cousin Juliet, whose parents have been estranged from the family ever since Rose’s parents sided with Rob’s parents in a political dispute some years earlier, moves back to town. After a school dance, Juliet and Rob are together. Rose is devastated. As she’s trying to put the pieces of her life back together, tragedy strikes.

By retelling an incredibly famous story from the perspective of a mostly forgotten character, we get a book with no surprises that still manages to be surprising, interesting, and engaging. The writing is clever and well paced and I cared enough about the characters to be emotionally moved even by something that we knew was happening from the very beginning. There’s also a good amount characterization and story that exists outside of the Shakespearean adaptation. I was particularly fond of Rose’s best friends, Charlie and Olivia. The three of them might have been the kind of popular girls I’d never have spoken to when I was in high school, but they are smart, funny and loyal friends. I love when the friend characters of a protagonist are this well-crafted, enough to hold their own in a story outside of simply being a sidekick. Charlie is bossy and a little mean, but she’s got Rose’s back until the end.

However, from a Slatebreaking POV, the book has its faults. As much as I appreciate getting Rosaline’s perspective, the Juliet character in this book isn’t given as much development as she maybe deserves. Though we get some backstory as to what’s happened in her life to underscore her choices, as readers we aren’t really expected to sympathize with her. Charlie and Olivia are quick to villainize her, to categorize her as a bitch and a slut, and Rose, and the readers are meant to agree. It’s not that I want us to see Juliet as a helpless victim, and I really like that we get to see the flaws in the insta-love Romeo & Juliet Romance, but I wish that we got a little more of this side of the story.

Ultimately though, Rebecca Serle’s first novel is a worthwhile read and a satisfying adaptation. I’m excited to see what’s next from this author.

Reviewed from library copy.

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