Fair Rosaline (Natasha Solomons) – Book Review

No Shakespeare play has, in recent years, received more attention, reappraisal, and revision as Romeo & Juliet. Whether that’s through the lens of books, television, or even stage musicals that transpose the giant pop bangers of Max Martin into a joyful revisionist take (here’s looking at you &Juliet), the classic tale of star-crossed lovers from rival feuding families has never been more eagerly explored.

Amongst the most revisited characters from Romeo & Juliet is Rosaline, Romeo’s ‘original love’ who never gets her dues in the original play and is used mainly as a cipher to the luminous Juliet. In recent times there have been attempts to centre Rosaline as a fully-realised individual, whether that’s the Shonda-Rhimes-produced romantic drama Still Star-Crossed that shows the aftermath of the play and pushes Rosaline and Benvolio Montague into an arranged marriage to try and mend familial wounds, or the 2022 Kaitlyn Dever vehicle Rosaline which revisits the events of the play through Rosaline’s perspective and attempts to rewrite things.

READ MORE: Conan the Barbarian #1 – Comic Review

Natasha Solomon’s latest, Fair Rosaline, is in the vein of the latter, following Rosaline across the duration of the original play; but where Dever’s film leans into comedic lightness, Solomons embraces the darkness in Shakespeare’s writing. Her take on Rosaline is grieving and adrift following the death of her mother and a decree from her father that she will spend the rest of her life at a remote convent, all before she ever crosses paths with Romeo Montague.

Instead of a cartoonish take on young-adult love, Solomons instead focuses on the inherent power imbalance between Romeo and his paramours, blending in complex themes of grooming, narcissistic abuse, and institutionalised power. This is Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown through the prism of medieval courtship and politics and Fair Rosaline is all the better for it.

Rosaline herself is a largely sympathetic, if not always likeable character, one who grows from her brattish beginnings into a selfless, compassionate individual, while suffering from some uneven and cliched characterisation (a scene where Rosaline declares all she needs for a move is books and her lute declares that she is Not Like Other Girls indeed). The other characters are mostly archetypes (the helpful housekeeper, the mysterious abbess, the half-baked love interest), but it’s inoffensive enough given how the narrative hones in on the toxic love triangle between Romeo, Rosaline, and the ingenue Juliet who, the text frequently reminds us, is not yet fourteen during the events of the novel.

READ MORE: Inanna (Emily H. Wilson) – Book Review

There are the usual number of plot contrivances for a story such as this, but they’re welcome enough as Solomons attempts to subvert expectations, particularly for stalwart fans of the original text, whether that’s the true nature of Rosaline’s consigned convent or even the semi-ironic title, which tips its hand towards another Shakespeare play. Best of all might be its ending which is perfectly pitched as both triumphant and bittersweet; Fair Rosaline uses the metaphor of a cobnut to reflect the convent, and which also rings true here for the novel’s resolution, which promises a sweetness beneath the pitch-dark surface.

Fair Rosaline succeeds as a reinterpretation of one of the most enduring plays of human civilisation, one that centres agency, power dynamics, and exploitation over the traditional view of doomed romance. With an ultimately compelling protagonist and a twisting, surprising plot that culminates in a radiant conclusion, Fair Rosaline is a satisfying take on one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing off-screen characters and a choice summer read for those wanting to see things from Rosaline’s perspective.

Fair Rosaline is out on 3rd August from Manilla Press.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: