So here’s the thing — I love Romeo and Juliet. Like, I really love Romeo and Juliet. Having done a degree in English Literature, I’ve read a fair amount of Shakespeare, and I will stand by Romeo and Juliet as my favourite of his tragedies, if not his plays overall. I know that it’s considered too “mainstream” by a lot of more academic folks, and that the internet is full of hot takes about how it’s actually a stupid story about stupid teenagers doing stupid things, and I’m the type of person who gets irrationally overprotective in response, ready to trot out a whole “in defense of” presentation at a moment’s notice. Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s film adaptations, West Side Story, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, High School Musical — I’ve seen all the adaptations. My point is, I love this play. And what’s immediately clear, reading These Violent Delights is that Chloe Gong loves it too.
Before I start singing her praises, I should establish that if you are someone who does not like the original play [I will not make any remarks about taste here because all opinions are valid blah blah blah] you will still be able to enjoy These Violent Delights. It’s inventive, original, and stands up formidably well on its own. But if you, like me, like Chloe Gong, love the original play, you’ll appreciate this novel’s love for its source material on another level. One of the most striking things Gong manages to do is capture the very particular pacing of the original play, which is no small feat given she’s extrapolating a single five-act play into a two-novel series. Most people are aware of the incredibly tight time frame of the original play, where all the action plays out over a matter of days. But an equally important part is the atmosphere of summer, the heat and languorousness simmering with tension that explodes in the play’s second half. Gong’s novel is fast-paced and action packed, but feels character driven and intensely drawn-out at the same time. Part of this is the fact that in These Violent Delights, Roma and Juliette have already met, fallen in love, and then fallen out for reasons unknown to us. The innocence and newness of first love that Shakespeare depicts has already happened and been shattered, and when we meet the characters, their edges have sharpened and their hearts have hardened. There’s a parallel narrative that unfolds, between Roma and Juliette’s first meetings and them in the present, and it perfectly encapsulates the balance between sweet romance and intense danger and betrayal that the play thrives on.
Roma and Juliette themselves are excellent leads; I fell in love with them each straight away. It’s worth noting I adored both original characters in the play as well and genuinely feel as though the pair of them are unfairly maligned. Gong adapts them wonderfully, however. We get to know both of them intimately as individuals — calculating, determined, knife-wielding Juliette, and gentle-spirited, conflicted, guilt-burdened Roma — and also develop a profound understanding of how their relationship affects and shapes the pair of them. Gong takes the blood feud from the play and elevates the conflict to an even more intense level; it’s not just Roma and Juliette’s circumstances and families keeping each other apart, but the weight and impact of their own decisions and pasts.
The love story is probably the single most important facet of the play, and I cannot stress enough how obsessed I am with Chloe Gong’s adaptation of it. I don’t know how she made this even more painful and angsty than the most famous tragic love story of all time, I don’t know how she managed to capture the spirit of the original while crafting an agonising, addictive slow-burn, but she did. Roma and Juliette had me open-mouthed and clutching at my chest like and old woman at her pearls more times than I can count. It took me way longer to get through this book than it would have because I had to reread Certain Scenes three, four, five times back-to-back because they were just so…*clenches fist* AH! She completely gets the spirit of the original couple, which is that they bring out new depths in each other, enable new sides to their characters — they make each other better, more hopeful people.
I have to also call out the cast of supporting characters. All of them are dynamic and fascinating, but Benedikt and Marshall are stand out favourites of mine. I can’t say much about them without dropping some spoilers but once again, Gong takes a crucial but small element of the original play and nurtures it into a multi-faceted and fully realised winning aspect of her own novel.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of These Violent Delights however is the setting. The backdrop of Shanghai in the 1920s is vivid and enthralling, brought entrancingly to life by Gong. It’s fully-fleshed out enough that it acts as another character in the play. The dynamic of all the different ethnic groups clashing in one city along with the political upheaval is fascinating, and makes the idea of gang warfare and blood feuds feel instantly more immediate and pressing. The introduction of an element of fantasy feels seamlessly, naturally integrated into the world of the book without overshadowing the real-world political and personal conflicts at work. They all tessellate, working together to create a constant tension and fast-paced, quickly unfolding conflict throughout.
And finally, I have to talk about the ending. No spoilers, but if there was anything that pushed this book firmly into 5-star territory, it was the last two chapters of the book. It was unpredictable while making perfect sense, it made me audibly gasp and sent my mind immediately start racing to come up with theories for Book 2. And it was an unimaginably inventive and audacious adaptation of one of the original play’s most famous plot devices; you feel truly as surprised as original audiences must have felt by Shakespeare’s original play.
That is ultimately the best part about this book. If there’s something I love more than Romeo and Juliet, it’s retellings — fairytales, classic novels, historical events… I’ve read retellings of them all. And Chloe Gong does expertly what all the best retellings do. She doesn’t simply transpose her source material into a new setting, she engages with the spirit of the original and in doing so crafts a story that is entirely and beautifully her own. She elicits the same response in her audience that Shakespeare would have elicited in his by taking the heart of his story and making it entirely her own, and I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.