As many of our members will already know, These Violent Delights is a spin on one of the world’s most famous forbidden romances, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What could go wrong, right? Apparently enough to start our very own feud over whether Roma and Juliette live up to the hype of their predecessors. Who’s in the ring? LitSoc’s Nadya (Marketing Director) is here in support of our new R+J, while Zara (President) is perhaps . . . not. Let’s get started!
SPOILER WARNING: If you have not started – or have not finished – These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, DO NOT READ! Don’t say I didn’t warn you (however, if you are a romance connoisseur that likes to know what you’re getting into, then onwards you go).
Nadya: Forbidden romances have long played a part in our enjoyment of love stories, with examples ranging from toxic to tragic to even happy, though not without the promise of suffering and many obstacles. While we may classify such a romance as forbidden (and therefore negative), the main appeal of this barrier-filled relationship comes from its stakes and the lengths each party is willing to go to for their significant other. In a world where everything is out to get you, it’s heartwarming to know someone could love you so much that they’d go through hell for you, and the amount of trials the couple tends to go through, which often include a risk of them getting badly hurt if they get caught, disapproving families and scrutiny for defying societal expectations, only urge us to root for their happy ending because of how much harder they have to work to reach it. It’s for this reason that Romeo and Juliet is such a popular love story to adapt, because, while we might bag on the romance for being tired and cliche, the variations you can put to their story and their yearning and love for each other, despite coming from families full of hate, is why we keep coming back to it.
Zara: The determining factor for a quality forbidden romance is the author’s ability to successfully execute tension-filled scenes between the two main characters. Whilst one could argue that separation is a crucial element of forbidden romance, I tend to disagree. Although time apart is a tool to build lust between the couple, it is once this ends that we get a real taste of that intoxicating rush. We all want what we can’t have, and when we are faced with the ultimate test of whether to stay silent about our feelings or come clean – that is when the thrilling moments happen. It is these moments that flutter the reader’s heart to keep them coming back for more in a forbidden romance, holding their breath to see if the characters will act on their desires. These can be small knowing glances when the two are in the same room all the way to them declaring their love for each other. All of these moments, no matter how seemingly insignificant, add up to the heightened consequences that create a pressurised reading experience.
Zara: The themes and setting of These Violent Delights were the reasons I stayed. Gong does an amazing job at discussing colonialism, and Juliette’s journey within this setting feels relatable and real. Watching Juliette navigate her life now that she feels like a stranger in her own country led me to develop a connection with her through this struggle. Her distaste for these Westerners, despite being viewed as one of them, makes you ache in understanding of the dichotomy that defines her identity.
They believed themselves the rulers of the world – on stolen land in America, on stolen land in Shanghai. Everywhere they went – entitlement.
Unfortunately, that is where my praise ends. The rest of the book was filled with a mystery that I did not care for. The mystery, which I assumed would be a side plot, ended up being the entirety of it. Trust me, this was as shocking of a discovery to me as finding out that there is literally no romance in this book. Perhaps it was my fault for judging a book by its synopsis, yet, when you announce that your story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, that definitely puts expectations in readers’ heads. These expectations are unfortunately not met. The romance is treated like a forgotten sub plot, and the lack of effort put into the characters chemistry makes you wonder if Gong is aware that she is, indeed, writing a forbidden romance. I can safely say that there wasn’t a single scene with these two together that made me feel anything above a sigh.
Nadya: Within These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong does exceptionally well at adapting a Romeo and Juliet style plot to the 1920s Shanghai setting, reflecting the city’s clash between its Eastern and Western identities within the characters’ struggles of being caught between two worlds. In the case of this novel’s reimagined Romeo and Juliet – Juliette and Roma – their relationship embodies the city’s damaged beauty. Their sweet first meeting in 1922, which fell in tune with Shanghai’s momentary peace after last of the Great War was scrubbed clean, made them believe anything was possible – enough to convince them they could forge their own world free from the blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers (this novel’s rendition of the Capulets and Montagues respectively). But, just like how Shanghai’s prosperity comes at the cost of further fracturing as the decade nears its end, Juliette and Roma have their youthful dreams dashed and are forced to grow up. In these parallels, the author’s decision to characterise the main leads as former lovers only makes you feel more for their attempts to hold back their feelings for each other in the present because of what it represents.
In fact, it’s interesting to hear how Zara claims there was no romance within the novel when Juliette and Roma’s history together not only drives the plot forward, but the palpable tension between them also reflects how much they still trust one another – how easy it is for them to fall into old habits – and the lengths they’d go to see their other half still alive even if they’d be hated for it. And while, yes, hearing them reminisce about their past romance made me wish the author had written about it, you get a clear sense of why Chloe Gong made the divergences from the original Romeo and Juliet to create Juliette and Roma (putting into perspective their different family values and cultural upbringing compared to the original setting). In turn, we see why they are a riveting relationship to follow despite, or perhaps because of, those changes.
Nadya: You’re asking me to pick just one? From the beginning of the novel we’re given establishing moments through Roma’s lacklustre attempts at hiding how much he wants to reach out to Juliette, Juliette’s frustration at her inability to disregard Roma’s requests, how familiar they still are with each other’s movements and how they know that even when it’s in their blood for them to sink their knives into each other’s hearts – even when they have each other’s families’ blood on their hands – they would never go through with it. These small moments, which show how much they still love and care for each other, build into the bigger moments in the second half of the novel: Juliette’s desire to help save Roma’s little sister Alisa because of how much she means to him; Roma throwing caution to the wind and embracing Juliette during the street chase to protect her from getting killed by an outsider; their drunken banter and kiss after running away from the raid at Mantua and Roma’s accidental confession; Roma’s resolve breaking as he tells Juliette the lengths he went to save her from death and how’s he never stopped loving her; Roma, knowing her struggle, reassuring Juliette she’s not a monster because she mourns for her victims; Juliette finally giving into her feelings and putting complete trust in Roma; Juliette scrambling to do everything she can to stop Roma from clawing himself to death after being inflicted with the virus that’s killing both their families; and Juliette having to stage the death of Roma’s closest friend to protect him and the people they love, even if it means he’ll hate her for it, because she believes she deserves it. Tension or otherwise, the lengths Juliette and Roma go through to make sure their other half stays alive, even if it means they get hurt in the process, reflect two people who wholly love each other desperately trying to make the best of a world doing everything it can to tear them apart.
Zara: Nadya’s response creates an illusion that there were an array of romantic scenes to choose from. However, that is not the case. Instead, there are just small moments – rare glimpses – at the romance that rarely led anywhere. Nonetheless, my favourite was the scene in the brothel in chapter 29. I love when characters are forced into binding situations in which they must interact with each other, often leading them to admit what they have truly been feeling the entire time. I believe it is so effective because, for the first time in the entirety of the book, we get to see the real them – the protagonist is no longer hiding her feelings from the reader and watching that play out is really intense. We ultimately see where this underlying tension has been coming from, pinning the root cause of this love affair. However, that is quickly destroyed as Juliette remembers who she is kissing, the man who supposedly ‘left her to the wolves’. This abruptly ends any lust between them and puts a damper on the entire scene.
Leading up to the big reveal of Roma discussing the attack you would assume there would be tension galore, but alas, there are a couple sentences of tension and then nothing else. I swear, every time Juliette mentions the betrayal she acts as if she doesn’t even like Roma. It’s okay girl, you can lie to yourself, but it would be more interesting if you were honest. If we could really see how she was feeling then we could see her grappling with these forbidden feelings more – that would have made the romantic aspects that much better.
Zara: I do believe these characters have a logical affinity for each other. However, a lot of the ideals and beliefs they once shared are no longer in play. The glimpses we get of their past selves show that, at one point, when they first fell in love, their future goals were perfectly aligned. They were both striving for a united Shanghai. However, in the present setting of the book we see that Juliet has been changed by her time away, returning hopeless and believing her dreams will never be realised. It is of my personal belief that Juliet still wants those things – she has just buried them. I would have loved to see her re-evaluate these beliefs now that she is back with Roma.
However, when considering characterisation, the biggest letdown would have to be Roma. We see very little of his personality, and whilst I believe he would want to be with Juliet for the reasons above, their chemistry is lacking. Roma has no distinguishable traits that make him unique, and while Juliet is infinitely better in comparison, even she lacks at times. Unfortunately, Roma’s bland personality leads him to feel like a piece of stale white bread with no thoughts of his own. It is a shame he falls into the classic YA love interest trope, as he could be really interesting if it weren’t for his lack of characterisation.
Nadya: I find Juliette and Roma’s relationship works due to the way they complement and understand one another. Where Juliette is fierce, angry and daring, Roma is like the moon to her sun – quiet, melancholy and contemplative. When Juliette strikes, Roma is there to cover her blind spots, and overall, makes the search for the source of their families’ current ailment easier and faster to get through as a team, rather than apart. Their seamlessness is also reflected in their passion for each other, as while Roma may not carry himself as boldly as Juliette, he is by no means void of emotions. It’s clear throughout the novel how much he still cares for and loves Juliette, instinctually looking out for her whenever she’s in danger and mourning his role in causing her loss of innocence. In a similar vein, just as Juliette cares deeply for her Scarlets, Roma’s stoicism is also broken when interacting with the people he considers family. He shows fondness, exasperation and affection towards his sister, Alisa – who becomes the one to steel his resolve and reach out to Juliette for help despite his fears – and close companions Benedikt Montagov and Marshall Seo, who, despite their bickering, are as fiercely loyal towards Roma as he is to them.
Being heirs, while Juliette and Roma have pondered life without the burden of their last names, they both carry the same determination to pass on the good of their family’s legacy and not let it fall into corrupt hands and face similar struggles in being shunned by their gang in favour of more brash family members – Tyler for Juliette, and Dimitri for Roma. Their mutual struggles, even with the four years they’ve spent apart after their failed romance, allow them to see past the facade they’ve each built up, recognising they share a desire to be more than what their titles dictate for them and want a better world for the people they care about (which is what led them to fall in love in the first place). As such, this deep desire within Juliette and Roma to find a solution that allows them to have a future where they have someplace to exist as just themselves – as Juliette and Roma and not Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov – is also shared with the audience, and we too cry for the author to give them their happy ending despite the improbable odds.
Nadya: I will firmly defend that Chloe Gong made the right choice in establishing Juliette and Roma as former lovers, as it emphasises the seriousness of their families’ feud and their growth as adults while also allowing for an underlying romance to develop in the novel’s timespan without it being forced. Given the long history between the families, it would’ve undermined their conflict of values – both Juliette and Roma have been groomed since birth to value family and hate their enemies above all else – if they eventually ran away together or were somehow able to keep their relationship a secret for so long. If a world-weary adult Juliette and Roma were quickly caught and pushed to fracture their relationship just to ensure their other half stays alive, then a teenage Juliette and Roma would’ve been forced to face reality much sooner, which makes the truth about Roma’s betrayal and its consequences all the more heartrending.
On the opposite end, had the author planned for Juliette and Roma to develop feelings for the first time during their search for the source of the madness, she would’ve needed a lot more time than the length of These Violent Delights to allow for a romantic relationship to progress in a believable fashion. In fact, due to the nature of Juliette and Roma’s families’ relations, and this likely being the first time they’ve had to work this closely together, Juliette and Roma would have to get over the hurdle of admitting that they’re friends first before even registering they might have any romantic feelings for each other in the first place – as they’d be preoccupied with saving their families more than anything else. If, for some reason, Juliette and Roma suddenly realised that the best time to explore their romantic and sexual tension was before they even confessed to each other that they actually care and trust each other more than they should, that might fall more in line with the traditional Romeo and Juliet story but they wouldn’t be nearly as developed as the way Chloe Gong had originally written them. So, in other words, yes, I do believe Chloe Gong did well in making Juliette and Roma ex-lovers who still have feelings for each other to suit the setting and plot in These Violent Delights, because if she wanted to write Juliette and Roma falling in love for the first time she would’ve written the prequel to the novel – set during a less tumultuous time where Juliette and Roma, and even Shanghai, didn’t shoulder as much burden or carry as much damage as they do in the present.
Zara: The fact that Roma and Juliette have already had their star-crossed lover’s extravaganza off page, before the story begins, means we don’t get to see any of the initial build-up to this romance. All flashbacks we receive are tainted by Juliette’s cold disposition towards Roma, not giving us clear insight into how she truly feels. I really got sick of listening to Juliette discuss how their love used to be good but now it’s evil and something to fear. So you can get over the forbidden aspect once but not twice? I understand she felt betrayed by him, but she could have at least asked for clarification before alienating him. Further, if she had to react in that way then they were at war, and if she believes all her ideals like she says she does – that the gangs will never be united – then isn’t betrayal expected? Also, what about the fact that she immediately believed it was Roma that sanctioned the attack even when the note was from his dad? Betrayal goes both ways, and her ability to instantly believe that her lover would do that proves she may not have had much faith in him to begin with. I find it inconceivable that, if she was actually that in love with him, she would just accept he could do such a thing with no real evidence. If anything, she is the one more likely to betray him for her gang. In a flashback Roma says, ‘You could be a Montagov,’ and she replies, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.' How does she then believe that he ruined what they had simply in the name of being a Montagov, when he was willing to ‘erase both names’. She was the one less willing to believe there could be peace.
Zara: Being disappointed in the romance could be partially my fault because of my previously mentioned expectations. However, what I don’t think impacted it was the 1920s Shanghai setting. Despite being from different backgrounds, they are both on even playing fields. As it was set in the 1920s, I was prepared for a romance that may not be as forthcoming as we would be used to in the present day. However, I wonder if Gong even considered this aspect, as the time period never really comes into the question? Even the Shanghai setting does not appear to affect the romance other than Juliette’s struggle with being viewed as Western amongst her peers. This westernisation of Juliette could be a reason for why she never seems to be considering traditional customs when it comes to her relationships. If this is the case, then yes, the Shanghai setting has altered the romance, and it makes sense for Juliette’s character to act in this manner.
Nadya: While the 1920s Shanghai setting didn’t have any particular influence on my thoughts regarding the romantic relationship between Juliette and Roma, how I resonated with Juliette’s conflict over being too Western for Shanghai and too Chinese for America as an Asian immigrant who also grew up in the West as well as the diversity of the characters within the setting made me enjoy the novel more than expected, and hence, made me root for Juliette and Roma’s relationship.
However, even more than that, the aspect I enjoy most about their relationship is how they see each other as equals – both as lovers and enemies. While they snipe back at each other over their murder techniques and their ability to infiltrate, there’s no underlying power dynamic where one thinks they’re inherently superior to the other. In fact, their relationship as teens kickstarted because they both saw Shanghai – their home – as a place they wanted to share and make a better place. Even in the novel’s current timeline, with the tension between the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers at its peak, both gangs mutually struggle with having to appease and work with the foreign powers occupying Shanghai and clamour over land they’ve lived on for much longer than the invaders. It wouldn’t sit as well with me if the White Flowers were characterised as predominantly British or French Gangs, since, given the time and setting, they would have had an unfair power advantage over the Scarlet Gang with more influence over Shanghai’s Western conglomerates than the Cais. Or maybe I would’ve liked Juliette and Roma’s love story anyway, so long as they still had the same respect for each other, faced similar struggles and loved each other just as hard as Chloe Gong originally envisioned. That said, I really do love the setting as a whole, as it’s not often explored in historical fiction, and I would love to see how the author expands on it further in her next novel – especially in regards to Juliette and Roma’s relationship.
Nadya: 8/10. Their sun and moon dynamic, their status as equals, their banter and how well they can read each other even before they clear up the misunderstandings of the past make for a plethora of amusing and heartrending couple moments. In both their past and present relationship, it’s clear that – as ironic as it may seem with everything stacked against them being together – they feel most free when they’re in each other’s presence, as they don’t have to pretend to be anything more than themselves.
Zara: 4/10. If there were bad examples of chemistry, I would insert them here. Unfortunately, there are no examples, good or bad, that I can draw upon, as this book includes none of it.
Zara: 8/10. Juliette is definitely very angsty. I even compiled a list of the most frequent words used to describe their tones towards each other: ‘commanded’, ‘muttered’, ‘corrected’, ‘scolded’ and ‘snapped’. This just annoyed me. I can tolerate certain levels of angst, but there isn’t even any chemistry underlying that hatred to make it worthwhile. It isn’t a teasing type of hate nor does it feel like a hate–love dynamic, it just feels like pure annoyance.
Nadya: 10/10. It’s established from the start that the only thing keeping them from booking it a la Romeo and Juliet (which, in itself, ended in tragedy) is their execution if their families ever found out about their relationship and their fear for what would happen to their loved ones and the fate of their gangs if they left. Add onto that the clear contrast between their innocence as teenagers and their current cynicism as well as the role reversal towards the end after Roma made amends with Juliette, and you’re left with the urge to scream at the author for a happier ending in the upcoming sequel.
Nadya: 7/10. With Roma readily reminiscing about the past at a moment’s notice – even immediately slipping back into a first-name basis when talking to Juliette for the first time in years – and doing the most to grab her attention – not-so-casually asking her for a dance at the masked party or climbing up to her window just to talk – despite his reluctance to bother her, we can tell Roma’s still got it bad for Juliette, even before the alcohol loosed his tongue and gave him the courage to confess. Juliette, rather justifiably, does not return the sentiment (or, at least, tries hard not to show it), but gives into her heart after finding out what really happened four years ago and learning how Roma never truly stopped loving her despite having every reason to.
Zara: 3/10. I’m so over these two. Juliette just spends the whole time talking about how naïve their old love used to be. Well, according to this story, you are meant to still be longing for this love. This means, no matter how many times she tries to call it stupid, we all know she wants it, even though she never voices that. There is no longing in these reflections because she immediately shuts it down as being bad. Therefore, she never reminisces about the happiness she felt, so I have nothing to long about. YA KNOW?
Zara: Believe it or not, I didn’t hate this book entirely and gave it a 3/5 in total. I truly believe that if Gong ups the romance in the next instalment, this could easily be a 5/5 read for me. I just hope she remembers to write a romance this time.
Nadya: Funnily enough, I came into the book expecting not to like the romance but ended up falling in love with the characters and their dynamics. While the book is not perfect by any means – it gets a 4/5 from me because the main plot involving the virus gets convoluted at times – I’ve enjoyed reading it more than any book I’ve read so far this year and can’t wait for the sequel to come out.