Welcome to the next stop on the “Juliet’s Answer” Blog Tour, courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada! I am so pleased to host today’s event, and to share my thoughts about this delightful book. My thanks as well to Glenn Dixon for the Q&A (below) and for taking the time to provide his thoughts.
When Glenn Dixon is spurned by love, he packs his bags for Verona, Italy. Once there, he volunteers to answer the thousands of letters that arrive addressed to Juliet—letters sent from lovelorn people all over the world to Juliet’s hometown; people who long to understand the mysteries of the human heart.
Glenn’s journey takes him deep into the charming community of Verona, where he becomes involved in unraveling the truth behind Romeo and Juliet. Did these star-crossed lovers actually exist? Why have they remained at the forefront of hearts and minds for centuries? And what can they teach us about love?
When Glenn returns home to Canada and resumes his duties as an English teacher, he undertakes a lively reading of Romeo and Juliet with his students, engaging them in passions past and present. But in an intriguing reversal of fate and fortune, his students—along with an old friend—instruct the teacher on the true meaning of love, loss, and moving on.
An enthralling tale of modern-day love steeped in the romantic traditions of eras past, this is a memoir that will warm your heart.
There’s something special about Shakespeare’s tragic love story of Romeo & Juliet. Even in high school, I was entranced by the notion of two young lovers – my age, or thereabouts – who fell for each other over a matter of days, with infatuation turning to true love and ultimately, their untimely deaths. I was blessed with an English teacher who was much like Glenn Dixon must have been, and who made the play come alive for us. We laughed at the bawdy humour of the nurse, appreciated Juliet’s dry wit, groaned over Romeo’s feckless heart and secretly adored Mercutio. We also fell silent at the first declarations of true love at the balcony, and took the grief of the two families to heart at the end of the play.
Imagine, then, how delighted I was to read Juliet’s Answer, a book that not only takes us through Dixon’s own journey from heartbreak back to love while teaching high school students about Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, but also gives us the enticing and almost dream-like world of Juliet’s ‘secretaries’. Dixon’s time in Verona answering the letters of the lovelorn slowly exposes his own heartache, and makes the reader remember their own broken heart and road to recovery. In fact, the letters become a character in his story as much as his fellow secretaries and his students. I loved these tantalizing glimpses into the lives of others, and it reinforces that love really does transcend language and borders. The problems and heartache written on these pages are universal, and in these tumultuous times, perhaps we need a reminder that the heart with love without reservation if we let it.
I was drawn in by the concept of the “Juliet Club“, a real-life organization where forty-five volunteer secretaries from all over the world answer over 50,000 letters from those who seek love. Dixon’s story may be non-fiction, but his flowing narrative draws in the reader from the first page, and paints a vivid picture of his life in Verona. He walks us through the streets, and we can almost scent the flowers in the air, and feel the smooth bronze on the statue of Juliet. Mixed into this incredible experience is the story of how his heart was broken by a woman named Claire, and it is a story that we can all connect with at some point in our lives. Luckily, this story gives us redemption in the form of a brand new love story in a beautiful setting (no spoilers!).
The historical aspects of Romeo & Juliet was another of the other aspects to capture my interest. I’ve always presumed that there was a vague reality connection, but had no idea about the Dante piece, nor that the families may have actually existed in some way centuries before. I’m more eager than ever to visit Verona and to take the tour provided by the Juliet Club in order to understand the history behind the story. I’d love walk the path described by the author at the end of the book, and to try to see the world from eyes that are several centuries old.
There’s a great conversation between Dixon and Desiree about the concept of fate versus our own ability to control our lives. Curious to learn more, I found a few online tests to assess your locus of control – one is here, and another here – and I wonder if some readers might be surprised by the results; I know that I was! Apparently, I believe in fate more than I thought (although not to a predominate degree), and as a result, I don’t take credit for my accomplishments in the way that I should. It made me consider the story of Romeo and Juliet in a new light; how, I wondered, might I have responded had I been Juliet?
By the end of the book, I was ready to board the plane to Italy and to give my time to reading and responding to the letters to Juliet. Dixon’s voice rings true throughout the book, and his honesty about the heartache he experienced makes his journey all the more remarkable. This is a love letter to Verona that requires no response from Juliet, as the love affair is destined to last a lifetime.
Juliet’s Answer originally started off as a book “about love around the world” — how and when did it make its shift into such a personal story?
That’s right. This book started off as a wide-ranging look at love around the world – marriage rituals in Kenya, nose rubbing amongst the Inuit, all sorts of things – but when I wrote what was supposed to be a sample chapter for the book proposal, a chapter on the letters to Juliet in Verona, my literary agent stopped me cold. That’s a whole book, she said. No, I tried to tell her, it’s a sample chapter. No, she insisted, trust me, this needs to be a whole book. And so, I started to write it. I didn’t know what lay ahead for me, which was a disaster in my own love life and another frantic trip to Verona. I had no idea of all the things that were just about to happen.
Throughout Juliet’s Answer, you mention evidence that Romeo and Juliet may not have been entirely fictional. Do you think that makes their story—and the lessons taken from it—more or less important?
Many people in Verona are absolutely convinced that it was a real story which happened in the year 1302. And, funny enough, when they started showing me the evidence, well, I came to believe it too. I’m not sure it makes the story any more or less important though I guess it’s a morality play that rings through the centuries. The idea is more than just love, of course, it’s about the power of love to eventually defeat the long-standing feud between the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets. I’ll give you one tidbit of history here – those two names were written down by Dante in the Divine Comedy. He was actually in the city at the time and he put them into purgatory for their role in the deaths of their children, and that’s three hundred years before Shakespeare.
It was evident that, as a teacher, you had made amazing connections with your students. Have any of them reached out in the years since you finished teaching?
Yes, I’m still in touch with some of my students. And occasionally (and any teacher will have this experience) someone or other will come up to me in a shopping mall or walking along the river, and they’ll say, Mr. Dixon, do you remember me? – of course many years would have passed and sometimes these students are all grown up, sometimes they have children of their own but occasionally, one of them will say, “You made a big impression on me,” and I have to tell you, that makes all those years of hard work completely worthwhile.
Now that you are no longer teaching, do you still return to and reread Romeo and Juliet?
I still go and look at individual scenes from Romeo and Juliet, to re-familiarize myself with them. And I’ll look at other Shakespeare plays – especially the ones I never taught. I’m particularly enamored right now with The Tempest. And, if I have a chance to see one of the plays, I’ll go. I’ve had the privilege in the last few years to see three or four of Shakepeare’s plays performed in the Globe Theatre in London – which is fascinating because there is no special lighting or stage sets, it’s exactly as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own time.
What is your favourite line from Romeo and Juliet?
When you’ve taught the play a million times, you tend not to favour the very famous lines – the “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” kind of lines. There’s a random quatrain near the beginning of Act three, Scene five that I always thought was dazzling:
“…look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.”
That’s the voice of a master, right there, describing the first light of dawn. That’s as good as it gets in writing. That one always stops me to linger on it a while.
Juliet’s Answer is published by Simon & Schuster Canada and a copy of the book was provided for this blog tour. All reviews and opinions are my own. It is available for purchase on February 7, 2017 from your favourite independent, online or chain bookseller. ISBN: 9781501141850, 288 pages.