I’m not one to swoon over pretty boys, because New York is full of them and you’d be swooning all damn day.
Jerzie Jhames, aged sixteen, is almost living her dream. (And if you think her name is a bit much, you should meet her brother, Judas). Jerzie has been training for Broadway her whole life, since the first time she heard Maybe This Time from Cabaret and it changed her as a person, and she is so close. Auditions and more auditions are all going great until super star Cinny is cast in the lead role Jerzie has been chasing, and Jerzie is relegated to standby.
So begins Roman and Jewel, the newest novel from Dana L. Davis, known for her previous books including the very well received Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now. Roman and Jewel is also the title of Jerzie’s dream Broadway show, the hip-hop Hamilton-style reimagining of Romeo and Juliet that is going to take Broadway by storm. There’s been a few real-life examples of other shows that came along after Hamilton, such as Six, which used the history as a springboard into something fresh, so Roman and Jewel totally makes sense as a show which could exist and indeed, London’s West End recently produced &Juliet, a jukebox style reworking of the classic story. You don’t need to know all of these musical theatre trivia facts to enjoy Roman and Jewel, but if you do know them, it certainly adds charm to the novel. Davis has clearly done her research, and fans of musical theatre will be delighted with the details she has included.
One of Roman and Jewel’s strengths is that it is not a direct retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, as you might expect from a novel like this. There are some beats in the plot that seem to tally up with the original tale, but for the most part, Roman and Jewel is its own story. There is one major event which I feel was a bit forced for the sake of mirroring Romeo and Juliet, but it just made me roll my eyes a bit rather than being genuinely irritating.
Of course, every Juliet needs a Romeo, and Jerzie’s comes in the form of Zeppelin Reid, the nineteen-year-old dreamboat musician who has been cast to play Roman. Zeppelin is a fairly standard YA romance lead; handsome, tortured and swoon worthy. I liked the character, for the most part, but there were a few moments where I was slightly alarmed by his behaviour, which was a bit too controlling for my liking. He is only a kid too, but in a novel filled with such wish fulfilment, I feel as though it should have been addressed.
Because this novel is wish fulfilment, of the highest order, and very good because of it. If Roman and Jewel wasn’t a romance, and was just about Jerzie’s journey to Broadway, I would have been even more taken with it. That’s where the real strength of the story lies. Jerzie is a brilliant narrator, with a strong, unique voice. There aren’t many sixteen-year olds who get cast in age-appropriate parts on Broadway, where it is fairly standard for twenty-somethings to play teens. It is refreshing to see a young woman – especially a young, black woman – get that chance which doesn’t really exist in real life, especially as she has worked so hard for it.
Jerzie is excellent at what she does – singing, dancing, acting, understanding music theory – and she has earned the part of Jewel. It is only Cinny’s fame that puts her front and centre, as is so often the case in real life, but Jerzie accepts the decision and makes the most of what she is given, going to rehearsals and preparing for her job as the stand-by. Ten years ago, there would have been certain factions of readership who said a character like Jerzie was ‘too perfect’ and ‘too good at everything’. I have no doubt that she would still annoy some people, but to them I would say that Roman and Jewel is not a novel for you. It is a novel for young people who are aspiring to something, and working hard to get there. The Romeo and Juliet story is the vehicle, but Jerzie’s focus and talent being rewarded is the real treat.
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