This book and the next book are companion novels, so they are intertwined. They are also apparently hi/lo novels, novels “intended for reluctant and struggling readers. As such it is fast-paced, short, and uses high interest content with simple vocabulary to keep these readers engaged.” And even knowing this I’m not sure they hit the mark.
I grabbed copies of these from NetGalley last month and only just got around to reading them in early August* because who doesn’t love an LGBT retelling of a classic? I know I do. Unfortunately, this part of the story, at least to my memory, was at such a minimum and tangential level it didn’t really work for me. It mostly came across in the main character’s names, Romeo Montague and Julian Capulet, and the very short time frame of the book.
These two books try to do good things for queer/LGBT+ youth, but could have done them A LOT better. This may have been a limitation of the hi/lo fast paced simple vocabulary, but with something as complex as human sexuality and self identity this might not have been the best mechanism for this story.
I thorough l enjoyed that there were lesbian, gay, queer, non-biary, trans, and straight cis-gendered cross-dressing characters represented in this brief glimpse into the world. However, with so many characters in this world of 186 pages (or 372 when you count both) there was so little time for character development none of them, including the main characters Romeo and Julian, got any more depth than the page they were on.
The writing itself was okay. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t bad. There were times like this
“Rome’s mind went blank. He was a boat floating freely in a vast ocean. The buzz of his drunken state buoyed him toward uncharted seas. The stranger’s dark eyes pulled him in like whirlpools. Rome’s body grew warmer, like it was waking up, brimming with excitement. The stranger came forward, reaching up to touch Rome’s cheek. A burst of desire rang through Rome’s chest, washing away any doubt he still might have had.” (Chapter 3)
That drove me crazy. How many metaphors can you cram into one paragraph? Maybe this is because of the hi/lo thing, but either way when I read this passage in Chapter 3 I almost gave up. Thankfully, there weren’t too many more like this.
There were two points when I actually laughed out loud because of something Harwood-Jones wrote:
“Julian knew so much about everything. It was like being on a date with a dictionary. But, like, a sexy dictionary, thought Rome with a bit of a smirk.” (Chapter 7)
Man Up for your Man Friends who like Men: The Straight But Not Narrow Project (Chapter 11)
Who wouldn’t want to date a sexy dictionary? And that book title really got me. I legit searched for it because I would totally read it just to see what sort of advice a book titled like that could give.
Then there were two serious parts that I felt Harwood-Jones treated well but entirely way too lightly which I believe is a limitation of the books time frame and the hi/lo language limitations.
“It wasn’t until he was back with Julian that Rome let himself feel the weight of all that had happened that day. He tried to joke about it at first. But his body began to shake as the reality of the fight with his parents and Ben’s rejection came back at full speed. His knees buckled and he sat down on the steps to Julian’s house. He stumbled over his words. ‘God, I’m so—I just—'” (Chapter 18)
I’m not sure about the rest of the LGBT community, but I know when I came out to someone other than myself that I actually knew (i.e. not a stranger on the internet) and said it out loud it put me out of commission for almost two days. I was so exhausted physically and emotionally that I couldn’t do anything physically and couldn’t comprehend anything emotionally/mentally. The fact that Romeo comes out, finds the love of his life, and then becomes an activist all in about four days drives me crazy.
The second thing that Harwood-Jones touched on that I wished he would’ve treated in less of a passing manner was self-harm.
“Julian told Rome his story—the bullying at school, the long, lonely nights, the pain it took to just keep going. Julian cut himself to stay alive. And then he cut again and again, when he felt like he couldn’t keep going anymore. ‘I just wanted to die,’ Julian whispered.” (Chapter 9)
I’ll talk more about this in the next book because it is Julian who experiences this, but I needed to mention it this time because I read this book first and it did come up.
Recommendation: Pass, but not a hard pass. If it piques your interest go for it. Were these the worst books I’ve read? No. Were these anywhere near the top of the young adult novels I’ve read? No. I was so mad at the ending of this novel, but got at least a little better ending with the companion novel. Honestly, the two books should’ve been merged together and been read every other chapter. I read this one on the way to work and Just Julian on the way home from work and when I finished both I was still like uhhhhhh, but that’s part of the romance trope of “happily for now” endings.
*I received a copy of Romeo for Real from the publisher via NetGalley in return for my honest opinion. No goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “Smoke trickled out of the car into the night air.”
Closing Line: “‘Okay, let’s do it. Let’s go out there and change the world.’ ‘Together,’ Rome agreed.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)