When I started reading Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray, I planned to discuss retellings as a fun approach to plotting a novel. The novel plays with Romeo and Juliet, complete with warring families and star-struck love. She updates the story with main characters in their 60s, florist shops and children as the worst offenders in the generations old feud. I’m sure it would have been a delightful topic.
But then I started chapter four and found a passage so well done, I knew I needed to write about that. Here’s the excerpt:
When my girls were growing up I believed them to be the beating heart of the world, the very center of the universe. Unfortunately, they knew I believed this and so they came to believe it themselves. As far as they were concerned I was there mother, pure and simple. I thought it would be different after they were grown, but even when Sandy had children and Nora took on her huge career, they still never thought of me as the same sort of living organism that they were. They were in their thirties now, competent women in every way, but if we were all in the kitchen together, they would read the newspaper while I chopped the tomatoes for their salads. They painted their nails while I set the table. I knew I was to blame for this, something I had done had made them this way, but as far as I could tell, the horse was gone and shutting the barn door was nothing more than a gesture.
So they had made me promise and swear and do everything short of stick a needle in my eye to keep me from seeing Romeo again. They could not imagine that I wouldn’t do what they wanted me to do, as that was the nature of our relationship. (35)
So what set the clanging bells off for me? It’s how Ray plays with reader expectations. As she shows the reader how Julie’s whole life has been dedicated to her children, you assume she’ll respect her children’s wishes (or at least try to) by not dating Romeo. After all, that is what a good mother would do and she is clearly a good mother. But Ray tricks us.
She doesn’t just tell us “my kids are used to me putting their needs first,” she shows us perfect examples that prove the point more effectively than telling us. Her kids sit as she makes dinner, they paint their nails while she sets the table. Even as adults, they don’t even offer to help, they assume she will continue taking care of them.
With this beautiful paragraph setting the scene of maternal sacrifice and love, using phrases like, “stick a needle in my eye” to convey the seriousness of the oath. Ray reveals her ultimate intention with the simple phrase, “They could not imagine I wouldn’t do what they wanted me to do.” Given the manner in which she introduced us to the situation, we are in the same boat. Not only are we not expecting her to go against her children, but we can’t even imagine it.
Ray’s deft hand at manipulating our expectations makes the passage more interesting and effective. A mother willing to go against her beloved children’s wishes reveals strong motivation. As a reader, we finally understand how strong Julie’s feelings are for Romeo.
So, dear reader, next time you’re reading, pay attention to how the author might be playing with your expectations.
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Reference: Ray, Jeanne. Julie and Romeo, New York. Broadway Books. 2000. Print.