This is a review that I wrote for Flying High Reviews. I decided to copy it to this blog, so I could add an additional paragraph about Shakespeare in the context of the novel which I thought my readers would appreciate.
This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a contemporary YA
novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion
and growing up in the American Midwest. I received a free copy from the indie
publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.
I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable. I expected This Above All
to be more conventional compared to those previous outings. In some
ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very
conventional aspect was high school. I tend to avoid YA novels that
take place in high school. Most of these have predictable character
types, dynamics and plots. This Above All contained those
elements. There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued
by miscommunication. Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean
girl. It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.
Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't
really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel.
While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual
lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this
novel, but it wasn't predominant. There was a gay character named
Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either. I read a review on
Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about
Tony's family interactions. Tony played Mercutio. If it's true that
Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over
the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli
wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.
felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while
portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book. She
initially had her doubts whether she could or should be Romeo. Yet
once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her
fictive male identity. I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender
character. It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's
possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical
context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.
Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to
achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to
Women becoming fictive men is a concern of Shakespeare--particularly in Twelfth Night and As You Like It. These plays aren't mentioned in This Above All,
but I believe that Piper was definitely following in the footsteps of
Viola and Rosalind. Culli displays knowledge and affection for
Shakespeare's work throughout her book without overwhelming us with
scholarship. The title itself is taken from a speech made by Polonius in
Hamlet. As someone who loves Shakespeare, I appreciated how the author wove the Bard of Avon into the book.
Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix
of themes. It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper
playing a male role. Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely
concerned about Piper's spiritual well being. As I am not a Christian
myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of
Christianity. Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own
views about religion. She ponders how she can maintain a relationship
with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions. It seems to me
that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of
the process of becoming an adult.
This Above All is
a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I
think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the
chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet. As we have seen in the TV series Glee,
communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who
feel like outsiders in a hostile world. Anyone who has felt at odds
with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate