Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on February 21, 2017
Genres: young adult, realistic fiction, contemporary romance, poetry, retellings
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This rating is not what you think.
Or maybe it’s not what I would think it to be; usually, for me, one-star reviews mean that the reviewer didn’t just dislike the book they’re reviewing–they hated it.
But I didn’t hate this book. I was just underwhelmed by it.
Ronit & Jamil is pitched as a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Not only is this conflict a current issue–it’s divisive, and it’s affecting both ethnic relations between Arabs and Jews and U.S. foreign policy. So divisive, current, and important–but not widely covered. Not in YA literature, at least. I’m also part Syrian, and my heritage has partially influenced my cultural interactions with others whose families are involved in this conflict.
So I was really looking forward to this story, both as a unique approach to Shakespearean retellings and as a provoker of discussion. This story promised to address the question posed in its first pages: Whose land is it, really? And is there ever hope for peace in a two-state solution?
This story doesn’t answer those questions. There are mentions of peace and conflict and bombs (although, some of this might be metaphorical; kind of difficult to tell when the book is written verse [I’ll come back to that]). There are moments where Ronit and Jamil question why coexistence is so impossible, and why enmity between the two nations has become so prevalent and potent, it’s practically its own family tradition. But these questions are not developed more–they are touched on briefly, and then left to dissolve in to the backs of readers’ minds.
It seems what I’m trying to say is that this story’s priorities were focused more on the romance than on an important contemporary socio-political issue. But what I’m trying to say is that…actually, I don’t know. I’m really not sure where this story’s priorities were, and I think that’s one of its major faults.
Am I supposed to focus on the romance? It’s barely developed. Ronit and Jamil go from acknowledging the others’ existence to having the hots for each other and running away together. Their connection is so brief and underdeveloped that I have no idea why they fell for each other, or why either loves the other so much they would run away from their former lives and their family. I also had difficulty telling the two of them apart; despite their different ethnicities and the variations that result (different ways of addressing their parents/talking about food, etc.), their voices were almost identical. What makes it even more confusing is that Ronit is the girl here, and Jamil is the boy; I thought at least I could rely on the beginning letters of their names to distinguish who was who (R=Romeo, J=Juliet), but here, it’s swapped, I think. Even now, I don’t know. I barely remember the characters themselves.
Am I supposed to focus on the conflict between Israel and Palestine? This book acknowledges that conflict exists, but more words are wasted describing food, running errands, and kissing than on covering this conflict. If you’re going to include an issue like this as a springboard for discussion, please use it for something. Conflict is conflict–it is meant for causing change. Conflict is a force, not a setting. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be mitigated to a backdrop for two lovers if you’re not going to address the nuances that make this conflict so messy. You could set this book anywhere else, and very little would need to be changed to tell the same story.
Ronit & Jamil‘s failure to develop both its characters and its conflict as real, engaging, and relatable renders this story ineffective–as commentary, as a retelling, and even as a book of good poetry; nothing about the prose in this book grabbed my attention. It’s a very quick read (I finished it in about two hours), but it’s forgettable–the last thing a book featuring such an important issue should be.