The premise of These Violent Delights is absolute catnip for me: Romeo and Juliet, retold in 1920s Shanghai as rival gangs. So, Shakespeare influence, check; decadence of the Roaring Twenties, check; political intrigue and organized crime in pre-Revolution China—just download it straight into my brain! So the charitable analysis of how I ended up feeling about it is, I think, that sometimes things can be a little too perfect for us and maybe lose some of their punch. The sweetest honey is, after all, loathsome in its own deliciousness.
Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai are no star-crossed lovers of 14 in this retelling—but they once were. The heirs of the White Flowers and Scarlet Gang, respectively, already had their heady, forbidden fling that ended in blood and death. The White Flowers struck at the heart of the Scarlet Gang, killing Nurse, among others, which then resulted in retaliation from the Scarlet Gang that took the life of Lady Montagov. Juliette was whisked away to New York for education and a serious image revamp, while Roma has been trying (and failing) to prove himself to his father ever since. Now, as very young adults, they find the old wounds left by their old romance still bleed.
Juliette, in particular, has come back looking for blood. From Roma, or from her cousin Tyler, who seems to be trying to usurp her as heir to the family organization. But as more and more Scarlets, and people in Scarlet territory, die after tearing out their own throats in a fit of madness, Juliette turns her bloodthirsty sites to finding—and stopping—the cause. Scarlets, however, aren’t the only ones spontaneously going mad and dying. Roma is neck-deep in his own investigation (which, frankly, I have to say is going much better than Juliette’s), and, predictably, the two keep bumping into each other enough that sparks fly once again. Will they get back together? Can their love heal the rift between their respective families?
You won’t find out at the end of this book, because it’s the first part of a duology, which is fine but, you know, good to know from the start. It does mean that a lot of the blood and guts you might expect from the play is yet to come, a promise that does bring more tension to some aspects of the story but also feels like tinder overdue for lighting.
I really wanted to love These Violent Delights. I anticipated loving it. I was so sure I’d love it that I lobbied hard for it to be my book club’s next pick. And it was just fine and I don’t feel that I wasted my time and I’m sure this would be the very perfect cup of tea for someone else who is not me.
Reviewing is easier when emotions are strong—really loving or hating a book. Being underwhelmed is harder, because I don’t think These Violent Delights fails in being itself, but itself just didn’t happen to resonate with this particular reader. I do think some of it was me having high and specific expectations at the outset. For example, even though the back-cover blurb does hint at a supernatural element running through the story, I did not expect monsters, and I did not expect that supernatural element to be so strong. I do love monsters, but I’m not sure These Violent Delights needed monsters to be a great and unique retelling of a classic tale. You’ve already got a country on the cusp of a cultural revolution to provide tension, even if the star-crossed and family-feud elements weren’t enough for you. Adding in monsters seems like shaking glitter on the still-wet paint of a masterpiece. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but does it actually add anything?
I will say that I am not the target audience for this book. It is targeted toward teens, and I’m not a teen, nor did I enjoy my teen years, so there is no fondness for me putting myself back into a teenager’s shoes. YA is always a little hard for me to connect to. Maybe teens do love glitter on everything. Maybe a taut family and political drama isn’t enough for teens. Author Chloe Gong was a teen when she wrote this, so I suppose she would know better than I would.
And it’s that recognition, that I am not in the target audience nor do I feel I can credibly pretend to be, that keeps me from detailing more reasons why this book did not delight me, personally. That I feel Gong really missed the mark when it came to entertaining me as a singular individual out of thousands who have read this book. My usual “Romeo and Juliette is not a romance” diatribe is, though not novel, always ready to go. It probably also poisoned me against the idea of Roma and Juliette getting back together as a grand romantic goal, as well. And if I’ve got that rant all cued up, it’s unfair for me to criticize how little sense it made to me that Roma and Juliette would even want to be together as people—on top of which, I know I don’t understand a lot of romances because of multiple facets to my identity.
This is all to say just what I said in the beginning, that I can see why people love this book. But for several reasons, it is not the book for me. This is okay. There are millions of books in the world, only a fraction of which I’ll get to read. It is the plague of authors at every stage of the process that involves other people—telling your friends about your idea, sending a draft to beta readers, querying, being on submission, having your baby out in the world and at the mercy of reviewers with knives for teeth and flames for eyes—to hear that something is excellent but simply not resonating with someone for whatever reason. Part of the reason that stings so much is because it’s true and legitimate, and there’s not a single thing you as a writer can do about it. These Violent Delights wasn’t just the very thing I was hoping and expecting it would be, but I am delighted that it is resonating with so many readers who love it like it deserves.