“These Violent Delights” Review: Reimagining “Romeo and Juliet”

January 28, 2021

Glittering Shanghai befalls bloody death in Chloe Gong’s debut novel “These Violent Delights.” Split in half between two powerful, feuding gangs, the city is run by the Capulet and Montague family equivalent of 1920s gangster Shanghai: the Cais and the Montagovs, respectively the Scarlets and the White Flowers gangs.

“These Violent Delights” reimagines “Romeo and Juliet” in a fast-paced, darkly-twisted, story of a contagious illness, or “madness,” that tears through the streets of Shanghai that cause its citizens to tear out their own throats and forces Roma (Romeo) and Juliette (Juliet) to set aside their weapons and work together to get to the roots of the madness rampaging through both of their gangs and killing their members. They are still star-crossed lovers, of course.

If you’re still reading this, good for you. Many would have turned their noses up and left at the mention of “Romeo and Juliet.” But this story takes a wild spin and reimagines it in a diverse story that slightly spins the rules of the original play.

The Scarlet Gang (Oblivionsdream on Instagram)

Roma and Juliette are 18 years old, having already had their torrent love affair at 14 that ended in a betrayal and forced Juliette to live in New York for four years before the book even began. Gong incorporates true Shanghainese history into the story, and one of the main focuses of the novel is how the White Flowers and the Scarlet gangs are both struggling to hold on to the power they hold over the city as both gangs begin to succumb to Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan’s imperialistic forces, as well as clash with the rise of Communism in their city. Each respective gang is fighting a battle on three fronts: the Communist uprising, Western and Japanese imperialism, and their rival gang.

Even though the story is a “Romeo and Juliet” reimagining, Gong stays historically accurate with the setting and events of Shanghai during that era, most importantly, from the Shanghainese perspective. Everything is historically accurate except, of course, for the Guàiwù‒monster.

Within Shanghai there is a river, the Huangpu, and sightings of a mysterious creature causes its victims to tear out their throats with their own hands. It plagues everyone, no matter which political front they are on or which gang they are affiliated with. This monster drives the plot, forcing Roma and Juliette to set aside their history and weapons to work together to find the root of the madness.

I will be honest: I passed this book many times at the store and never bought it because I, too, was a “Romeo and Juliet” snob. But Gong had stated in her biography that “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and it doesn’t deserve the slander that it gets in pop culture,” and my snobbishness succumbed to my curiosity.

“These Violent Delights” surpassed my greatest expectations. It gave me a new perspective on the original text of the play, as well as a new understanding of what the play was trying to illustrate. Most of us read “Romeo and Juliet” in our second semester of freshman year, and we are left only with the impression that the story was about two stupid young lovers and miss appreciating the artfully crafted last act of violence R and J sacrifice to end the cycle of violence.

The White Flowers Gang (Oblivionsdream on Instagram)

So, why do we hate “Romeo and Juliet” so much? 

“My biggest problem with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is that it is hailed as the pinnacle of romance,” said senior Hannah Negri. “I think people love the idea of forbidden romance, but the reality of their fling is that they know nothing about one another. There are no conversations about values or the consequences of their triste… I understand that it is meant as a tragedy, but I find it ridiculous.”

The author of “These Violent Delights” might disagree.

I think that because ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has been appreciated so much in the past, there’s been a cultural shift in our modern day where it gets disregarded for being overrated and is often cast as just a story about stupid teenagers,” said Gong in an interview with Brazos Bookstore. I would argue that the only reason we think it’s overrated is because its themes and ideas have managed to resonate so strongly over the centuries that we’ve grown overly familiar with them, and we’ve started to engage with what we believe rather than looking at the text itself.”

Gong also includes some fan favorites of the original play, with characters such as Benedikt to represent Benvolio and Marshall to represent Mercutio. Her characters are vastly diverse, representing characters from the Asian diaspora and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“I only graduated from high school four years ago but even then I hardly saw myself in those stories, and in the off-chance I did, it was stereotyped or thrown in for the sake of being exotic,” said Gong when explaining her choice to include a diverse cast.

You can still hate “Romeo and Juliet.” It definitely deserved its literary criticisms. But there is no doubt that “These Violent Delights” is a fun, unique, and new story that not only has the capacity to enlighten readers about the themes of an age-old story but offers a thrilling plot thick in history and violence. 

Honestly, I think people like reimaginings of “Romeo and Juliet” more than the original play.

“100 percent, think ‘Gnomeo and Juliet.’ Gotta love it,” said Negri. “I’d also be open to reading versions that poke fun at the original play.”

You can find “These Violent Delights” wherever you buy and check out books, both in hardcopy and online, and the audiobook is now available everywhere.

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