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Friday, June 15, 2012

'When You Were Mine' by Rebecca Serle

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Rosaline has been best friends with Rob since they were little kids. Recently, something deeper and more electric has entered their friendship, and when Rob returns after the summer break and asks Rosaline on a sort-of date, it seems they are destined to become a couple, just as Rosaline always knew they would be. The next day at school, a mysterious, beautiful girl arrives: Rosaline's long-lost cousin, Juliet. And suddenly it looks as if Rosaline might be about to lose her best friend AND her new boyfriend…

Rosaline ‘Rose’ Caplet is looking forward to the start of senior year, for more than just the obvious perks. Her best friend, next-door-neighbour and long-term crush, Rob Monteg, is returning home after being away all summer. He left Rose with memories of an ‘almost’ moment between the two of them, and a head filled with questions about where they stand and what happens next.

Rose’s best friends, Olivia and Charlie, are thrilled at the prospect of Rose and Rob dating – swearing that the two of them are meant to be together. And it looks as though they might be right . . .  Rob returns and things between him and Rose pick up where they left off. Knee-bumping, long looks and a confirmed date, and a kiss that confirms it all – that Rob feels the same way about Rose as she does him.

And then Rose’s cousin, Juliet, returns home.

Juliet and her family moved to LA when the girls were very young. Juliet’s father went on to become a powerful senator, but Rose and Juliet’s young friendship evaporated and they never spoke again. Until Juliet reappears in her life, and sweeps Rob off his feet right out from under Rosaline’s nose.

‘When You Were Mine’ is the debut young adult novel from Rebecca Serle.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is among the most misunderstood and overrated. No beef with the Bard or anything, but it’s probably his most over-quoted and underwhelming play (I’m a ‘Macbeth’ girl myself - what can I say? I’m bloodthirsty!). Don’t get me wrong, ‘R&J’ has its good points – I personally love Mercutio and Tybalt (best put-down line ever? “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee”). But people do tend to forget that it’s a tragedy, not a love story. Juliet was thirteen years old (creepy, huh?) and Romeo was as clingy as he was flighty, beginning the play with professions of his love for a girl called Rosaline. Never mind that Friar Laurence was a total cowardly villain who never gets his comeuppance. With all that in mind, I really liked the idea of a modern retelling of the story from the oft overlooked Rosaline, Romeo’s thrown-over ‘love’. Unfortunately, Serle’s attempt to give some page-time to poor Rosaline left me cold.

I do think that ‘When You Were Mine’ had a good idea behind it. Shakespeare provided a really interesting loose end with regards to Rosaline. Romeo starts the play by declaring:

One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.

Yet by scene five he proclaims of Juliet;
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night!

Ouch. Burn. But plenty of room for interesting ‘what if?’ that Serle runs with . . .  it’s just a shame she dropped the ball.

In this modern retelling, Rose and Rob are next-door-neighbours and best friends since childhood. When Juliet lived in town, all three were good friends until Juliet moved away when she was seven-years-old. When the book begins, Rob has returned home after a summer away and Rose is thrilled to learn that he has feelings for her. The two go on a tentative date, and share a heartfelt kiss, and Rose is certain all her crush dreams are coming true. And then Juliet returns home. Rose’s father and Juliet’s father stopped talking after he moved his family to LA – some mysterious family falling out that Rose is too young to remember, but which comes to the fore once again when Juliet returns. Rob and Rose’s parents, friends since the two were children, are having whispered conversations about the Senator and his family. Juliet is frosty towards her dear cousin . . . and she quickly sets her sights on Rob, who pretty quickly forgets all about Rose.

Now suffering the indignity of having to watch Juliet and Rob fall further and further in lust and obsession, Rose also gets paired with the class jerk in biology. Len Stephens is handsome, sure, but he’s also cocky and constantly smirking – and for some reason, always giving Rose a hard time, especially about Rob.

When rumours start circulating about Juliet’s self-destructive behaviour and Rob’s entanglement, Rose wants to step in but doesn’t know if she can overcome the hurt and pain that Rob and Juliet’s love inflicted on her. . .

I think the biggest problem with Serle’s ‘When You Were Mine’ is that it’s pitched too young. Narrated by Rosaline, the story feels like it’s more ‘tween’ than ‘teen’ because Rose’s voice is so young and naive. I can kind of see why Serle may have done this. Going off of the Bard’s framework, in the play a bit is made of Rosaline’s chaste sensibilities, as Romeo muses; “Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit with Cupid's arrow” (in other words; she’s saving herself). Serle plays with this for Rose, and her concerns with still being a virgin while one of her best friend’s already has experience, and the other is contemplating taking the next big step with her boyfriend. But what this translates to are a lot of over-blown scenes in which Rose muses on the message behind Rob’s knee touching hers in assembly. It’s not exactly earth-shattering, sparks-flying stuff.

I also think that by writing the novel for a younger audience, Serle missed out on writing meatier, more complex characters. I didn’t believe that Rob and Rose were ‘in love’ or even ‘in lust’ because all they came down to was a couple of kisses and hand-holding. I also wasn’t too convinced that Rob and Juliet had much in the way of chemistry – even though I think we’re meant to presume a lot when she rocks up to a party wearing his sweatshirt. Or we're meant to believe that the two are hot and heavy because Rose's friends, Charlie and Olivia, are constantly spouting 'slut shaming' vitriol about Juliet. I had a big problem with this too - bandying the word 'slut' around like it's okay to put girls down that way. It's not, and Serle having her characters constantly spit it out about a fellow student had me seeing red. But, ultimately, because I didn’t believe the relationships, the stakes were missing for me and I did belittle the romances in the book to ‘puppy love’ . . . more melodrama than actual drama. I think that would have been different if Serle had written this for a slightly older YA audience, including some PG13 scenes of connection and romantic interaction; really illustrating the love triangle. I also think Serle wrote a bit of a cop-out by alluding that Rob is blown away by Juliet’s looks, and that’s mostly why he chooses her over Rose. That may be inferred in the play, but it’s a hollow reason in this modern retelling (especially with the back-story of Rob and Rose’s long-standing friendship). It just adds to the idea of Rob’s childishness (and makes you wonder what Rose sees in him!) – not to mention it’s an insult to Juliet that the only reason the guy likes her is because she’s good looking enough to have appeared in a TV commercial or two.

Speaking of meatier, more complex characters . . .  they’re entirely missing from ‘When You Were Mine’. Juliet gets such little page-time considering her reappearance throws Rosaline’s entire life off-course. I know this is Rosaline’s book, and Serle wanted to write the antithesis to Juliet hogging the spotlight . . .  but Juliet had so few scenes and was such a one-dimensional, unfulfilled character that it just added to the feeling that Rose was making a mountain out of a molehill when, as readers, we couldn’t see how bad Juliet was. Because she was so one-dimensional, readers are never given the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether or not she’s manipulating Rob as a personal attack against Rose, or if it’s genuine affection.

This book also has one of my biggest YA pet-peeves. The adult characters are really just props, conveniently written in for grandiose pep-talks after spending the rest of the book in the shadows. The parents in ‘When You Were Mine’ are really just talking heads – there to (oh so conveniently!) provide words of wisdom when Rose needs them most.

Alas, most of the page-time that should have been devoted to Rob/Juliet/Rose was given to a character called Len Stephens – the school jerk and mysterious loner who Rose is paired with for a biology project. In him too, it felt as though Serle was writing a sickly-sweet and tidy romance for a much younger and more naive audience, when I think what would have been more interesting for Rosaline’s story is a build-up of her romance with Rob and the tragedy of losing it to Juliet.

Len sighs, like he’s already frustrated. “Look, I don’t really know how else to put this. You don’t need to worry about some dumb guy falling in love with you. You’re you.”
“Exactly,” I say. I’m me. Rose Caplet. Plain brown hair and brown eyes and the daughter of a history professor, not a senator. I’m not on magazine covers, and I don’t do allergy commercials. I don’t even drive.
Len turns to me, and he’s looking at me so intensely, I think he might have just sucked the air out of my lungs. All of a sudden I feel like I can’t breathe. “Sometimes,” he starts, “the hardest part about letting someone go is realizing you were never meant to have them.”

I also wasn’t a big fan of Serle’s writing style, in general. She has a propensity to write somewhat faltering sentences that read a bit clunky. Like this one, in which she needs to communicate how old Rose is in a flashback she’s remembering;

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting in the backseat of our station wagon with my arms crossed, beads of sweat rolling down my seven-year-old forehead.

Seven-year-old forehead’ was a really bizarre not-so-subtle way for her to tell me Rose’s age, and it was just one of the many oddly-worded sentences that took me out of the story on occasion.

All in all, I think ‘When You Were Mine’ had good story bones. Rosaline is an interesting loose-end in the Bard’s most popular play. Unfortunately, I think Rebecca Serle’s debut would have worked better with a more mature romance explored between the triangle of Rose, Rob and Juliet. As it is, the characters in ‘When You Were Mine’ come across childish and naive for their age, and a tidily convenient and romantic side-story relationship for Rose had me rolling my eyes. Not for me, sorry.

I am really surprised to learn that the movie rights to Serle’s book have been sold and there is a film tentatively in-development called ‘Rosaline’. The film seems to be in the very early stages, with no release date mentioned but Deborah Ann Woll (‘True Blood’) and Lily Collins (‘Mirror, Mirror’) signed on for unspecified roles. Because there is so little known about the film, I clearly can’t comment on how closely it will stick to the book – but I was intrigued by the one-line synopsis available on IMDB; “A young girl is dumped by a guy who immediately falls for another girl with whom he forms a suicide pact.” Now, that really doesn’t sound like ‘When You Were Mine’, purely for the reference to a ‘suicide pact’. Nothing so dark is in this book, and that’s another of its failings – there are unfounded rumours about Juliet taking sleeping pills but they’re crassly dismissed as sensationalism by most of the student body. And, considering this is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with perhaps the most famous ending of any play, the way Juliet and Rob die (not a spoiler – it was written in the stars, after all) was really quite anticlimactic. Again, it was Serle shying away from darker, more adult themes to leave their death so up in the air. From its one-line synopsis, I actually think the film adaptation sounds better and darker than ‘When You Were Mine’.


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