THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS
by Chloe Gong
Simon Pulse, Simon & Schuster, 464 pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights is a vibrant reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, taking place during the Roaring Twenties in Shanghai of 1926. Gong’s tale of two star-crossed yet ill-fated lovers begins in the middle of a fierce blood feud between two warring gangs: the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers. Described as “an age-old hatred whose cause had been forgotten to time,” their bitter vendetta runs deeper than the Huangpu River that cuts through the city. The weight of each gang’s future rests heavily on the shoulders of both Juliette Cai, heir to the Scarlets, and Roma Montagov, heir to the White Flowers. The pain of betrayal burns at each heir’s core, engulfing their previous love in flames. However, when a sinister presence lurking within the depths of the Huangpu threatens all of Shanghai, Juliette and Roma must work together if they ever hope to save everyone, including each other.
I thoroughly enjoyed Gong’s rendition of a timeless classic, combining Shakespearean pomp with Jazz Age flair. Her story of Juliette and Roma still rings true to the original, but what makes her tale different is that Gong adds historical, sociopolitical, and supernatural elements that give her tale a new level of context and depth. These elements put our two titular characters in a situation that’s more than simply rekindling a love once lost—the fates of the Scarlets, the White Flowers, and all of Shanghai hang in the balance. Told through the perspectives of Juliette, Roma, and a few secondary characters, These Violent Delights explores the struggles of two former lovers not only fighting to define who they are, but also fighting hard to protect those they love.
I appreciate Gong’s choice to subvert the gendered character roles of Juliette and Roma. The dainty, demure Juliette we’ve seen before is now, as Gong writes, a “Killer. Violent. Ruthless. All those and more—that’s who [Juliette] was now.” As the female heir to the Scarlets, Juliette has to prove herself tenfold because a demure girl has no place leading the gang, but a dangerous woman can.
I appreciate Gong’s choice to subvert the gendered character roles of Juliette and Roma. The dainty, demure Juliette we’ve seen before is now, as Gong writes, a “Killer. Violent. Ruthless. All those and more—that’s who [Juliette] was now.” As the female heir to the Scarlets, Juliette has to prove herself tenfold because a demure girl has no place leading the gang, but a dangerous woman can. Roma, on the other hand, is written as an heir who is loyal to the White Flowers, but sees things as a means to an end. Driven by emotion, Roma was once favored among his gang, but Gong writes that “…one day Roma had been trusted by his father as closely as one should expect from a son and the next, regarded suspiciously as if Roma were the enemy.” Now Roma makes sure to tread lightly—for his own protection, the protection of what’s still rightfully his, and the power that comes with it.
As riveting as Juliette and Roma are, the secondary characters are rife with personalities befitting their namesakes. Juliette’s cousin Rosalind is as Shakespeare writes: “The all-seeing sun / ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.” Stunning, cunning, and beautiful, Rosalind and her sister Kathleen are sisters with a deep bond and affection for one another. Gong brings Shakespeare’s comedic heroines from As You Like It and makes them prominent and capable women worthy of one day running the Scarlets beside Juliette. In contrast, Juliette’s quick-tempered cousin Tyler is the next male in line to rule the Scarlets—posing a direct threat to Juliette. Gong writes, “[Juliette’s] cousin was a boy with steel skin and a heart of glass.”
In Roma’s court we have Benedikt and Marshall, two of my favorite pairs in this story and in the original tale as Benvolio and Mercutio. Gong writes that Benedikt “always seemed to be simmering over something right below the surface, but nothing ever came through, no matter how close he came to it.” A calm, collected peacekeeper, he ensures that Roma and Marshall don’t get into trouble. Marshall is the opposite. Impatient and impulsive, Marshall moves, as Gong writes, “like the world was on the verge of ending and he needed to jam as many movements in as possible.” Then we have the old, wise, and intelligent Lourens reminiscent of Friar Lawrence, offering advice and aid to Roma during his investigation of life and death. Gong’s choice to tell the story from these varied perspectives made me invested in how Juliette and Roma’s actions directly influence their lives as well. The lives of the secondary characters further raise the stakes for Juliette and Roma, as their rekindling love further puts their friends in harm’s way.
What I admire about Gong’s writing is that she uses descriptive language akin to Shakespeare, but modernizes it to the slang and flair of the twenties. She also incorporates Russian, Korean, and Chinese language throughout the story to strengthen her characters’ cultural backgrounds. Though the language is reminiscent of lofty Shakespearean, her imagery and attention to detail create such a gritty yet colorful world that I could clearly visualize.
When members of both the Scarlets and White Flowers fall victim to the maddening demise of the Huangpu beast, Juliette and Roma set off to discover the cause. Although a deep-seated vendetta keeps Juliette from trusting Roma, and Roma has to prove his loyalty to his father, they are both bound by their duties as heirs to protect the members of their respective gangs. Their investigation points to clues of the monster’s origin, but the truth is one that moves beyond the petty feud of the Scarlets and White Flowers—the monster’s wrath threatens everyone who encounters it, putting all of Shanghai in danger.
Gong weaves Chinese history throughout Juliette and Roma’s story, having Shanghai’s socioeconomic and economic status in the Roaring Twenties influence the operations and allegiances of the Scarlets and White Flowers. Eastern culture finds itself shrinking at the expense of a Western culture seeking to become more prominent.
Gong weaves Chinese history throughout Juliette and Roma’s story, having Shanghai’s socioeconomic and economic status in the Roaring Twenties influence the operations and allegiances of the Scarlets and White Flowers. Eastern culture finds itself shrinking at the expense of a Western culture seeking to become more prominent. Communists are gaining prominence and power within the city through workers strikes and backdoor dealings, threatening the Nationalists who want Shanghai to remain as it was. Juliette notices this, which strikes a sour chord with her pride in being Shanghainese. Roma is the descendant of Russian immigrants who claim parts of Shanghai as their official territory, and he doesn’t want any more competition with other foreigners, especially Communists. French and British influences were taking hold of the city, the integration forming less of a melting pot and more like crabs fighting in a barrel. Gong describes Shanghai as “[a] place that rumbles on Western idealism and Eastern labor, hateful of its split and unable to function without it, multiple facets fighting and grappling in ever-constant quarrel.” This historical context grounds the story, making it more tangible and real for me as a reader.
Gong’s horrifyingly symbolic creature of the Huangpu, described from different points of view spread via rumors throughout the city, is a creature that only terrorizes Shanghai at night, and anyone caught in its wake kills themselves in madness. Rarely seen, the creature takes a form of its own in my mind as a reader, as well as the minds of the characters. What I enjoyed most about the beast was that as foreboding as it was, it was also vulnerable, in a way like the city of Shanghai. One account of the monster describes it “panting, as if in pain, as if struggling against itself, half cast in shadow but doubtlessly an unnatural, strange thing.” As I read further I realized that Shanghai was the same way, a formidable creature that no longer recognizes itself.
As the first book in a series, Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights is a captivating, sharp and suspenseful retelling of an age-old classic. Original and reminiscent of Shakespeare’s story, this work feels entirely new and leaves me excited to see how it continues.
Kristie Gadson is a copywriter by day, a book reviewer by night, and an aspiring comic book artist in-between time. Her passions lie in children’s books, young adult novels, fantasy novels, comics, and animated cartoons because she believes that one is never “too old” to learn the life lessons they teach. Kristie resides in Norristown on the outskirts of Philadelphia PA, which she lovingly calls “her little corner of the universe.”