Was Juliet a Mean Girl? Rebecca Serle and ‘When You Were Mine’

Writer Rebecca Serle will surely get some hate mail for reimagining Juliet as a greedy, jealous girl. She talks to Brian Gresko about 'When You Were Mine,' her version of the Shakespeare classic, in which she tells the story from the point of view of Rosaline, Romeo’s first girlfriend.

What if Shakespeare got it wrong?

It’s a question approaching the sacrilegious, but Rebecca Serle asks just this in her debut young-adult novel When You Were Mine, which reimagines Romeo and Juliet from Rosaline’s point of view.

A quick refresher: Rosaline is Juliet’s cousin, the girl who Romeo was crushing on hard before meeting the titular beauty. In the play’s opening scene, the young guy is heartbroken because, well, basically, Rosaline won’t give it up—she’s sworn to be chaste. Romeo crashes the Capulets' party to see her, and meets Juliet instead. The rest, along with Rosaline, is history.

Star-crossed lovers of Verona, young victims of an ancient family feud, doomed to die tragically—we all know how it goes. Romeo and Juliet have become romantic archetypes. But to Serle, Rosaline presents just as powerful and seminal a character, hiding in plain view in Shakespeare’s text—the girl passed over, jilted.

Serle, an effervescent personality in her mid-20s with a fetching smile and easy laugh, received her MFA from The New School in New York City. She lists Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—an alternative take on Hamlet from the point of view of the Danish prince’s ill-fated best friends—as serving, in part, as a model for When You Were Mine. But far from a postmodern intellectual exercise, Serle’s primary inspiration came from real-life experience. “I was heartbroken because someone had pulled a Romeo on me,” she says. “I was over at my best friend’s house, talking about love stories and eating ice cream. We hit on Romeo and Juliet and wondered, ‘Whatever happened to Rosaline?’ Immediately something clicked in my head. I started writing the next day.”

Serle says she wasn’t daunted by taking on one of the most beloved works ever in her debut. “Shakespeare is so fundamental to the way we see story,” she says. “A tremendous amount of narratives come from him, more than many authors are aware, I think.”

Serle shifts the setting from medieval Verona to contemporary California, changing names along the way. Romeo Montague becomes Rob Monteg, and Rosaline goes by Rose for short. Because Shakespeare only referenced Rosaline and she never speaks a line of dialogue, Serle could imagine her voice without worrying about how it synced up with the original text. Not so with Juliet, who comes across as a very different kind of character in the novel.

“We tend to see Juliet as being very sweet, innocent, naïve, and lovely. My Juliet is very few of those things. She’s vindictive, and comes to the book with a very specific past that’s defined her.”

In the novel, Juliet is a greedy little girl in the first scene she appears in, upset because she didn’t get the American Girl doll she wanted for Christmas and jealous of Rosaline’s Barbie, which she destroys. As a high-school student, Juliet is cold, calculating, and out to nab hottie Romeo, even though he’s Rosaline’s childhood sweetheart and boyfriend.

“Scholars have said that Romeo’s poetry gets better when he meets Juliet, that he deepens as a character, and that he was just wrong about Rosaline, which is true,” Serle says. “It’s devastating when that happens, when someone just ups and leaves for no reason, but love does sometimes go wrong. Romeo wasn’t the boy for Rosaline, and that’s not really his fault at the end of the day. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”

The film rights to When You Were Mine sold quickly to Fox, who will bring it to screens sometime in 2013 as Rosaline, with the title role to be played by Lily Collins, currently starring alongside in Julia Roberts in Mirror Mirror. Serle admits that Romeo and Juliet-style love stories are hot right now, citing the popularity of the Twilight saga. But she insists that When You Were Mine offers an alternative take on the trend.

“Some of these love stories can be destructive as examples of what it means to really love. To think that someone is your one and only, that you’re fated to be with this person, is a really powerful, sexy fantasy—but it is a fantasy, at least in part. We need to take a far more active role in love than Romeo and Juliet would lead us to believe. Perhaps that’s what Shakespeare’s saying, in a way. We can’t leave it all up to fate,” Serle says.

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“The title of Romeo and Juliet isn’t Romeo and Juliet. It’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. And yet it’s held up as being a defining love story. What is so good about it? Romeo and Juliet both die!”

Serle sees Rosaline’s story as one of empowerment, in which the character, who feels as if the love of her life has turned his back on her, regains personal agency. “When You Were Mine is not Romeo and Juliet’s story. It’s Rosaline’s story. I got to create her ending.”

In the process, she gained some peace on the breakup that started it all. “There’s no lasting point in the book where Rosaline wishes Romeo ill. There’s love there—and certainly resentment and anger—but mostly there’s heartbreak and sadness. And love, too,” Serle says. “She—and I—never felt glee at what happens to Romeo. What I did feel was just a lightening. It was really excellent therapy.”