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In 'Julieta and the Romeos,' a teen aims to uncover the identity of her mystery man

‎ Balzer + Bray

Most book lovers dive into a good book to escape the dreaded realities of life. In Maria E. Andreu's latest, Julieta and the Romeos, 17-year-old Julieta Toledo escapes into writing, the perfect haven for her increasingly runaway imagination.

There's heightened pressure on the prose when an author chooses to make their main character a writer, but almost immediately, the reader is pulled in by Julieta's highly entertaining penchant for hilariously detailed descriptions of the people, places, and things around her. Especially the three handsome boys she can't seem to avoid these days: Lucas, Calvin, and Ryan.

Julieta grew up with Lucas, since his parents are also from Argentina. Calvin is the excessively cute new neighbor who helps Julieta's dearest Abuela Bubbles around the house and watches telenovelas with her to help with his Spanish. And then there's Ryan, her best friend Ivy's twin brother, a rich, frat-boyish know-it-all who gets everything handed to him and has a knack for ruffling Julieta's feathers. Ryan was accepted to the Fairchild Summer Writing Intensive along with Julieta.

For writing exercise homework, Julieta posts a story online based on a series of romantic notes her mother once exchanged with a complete stranger at her father's hardware store back in Argentina. Her first entry is written as a letter. Almost immediately, she receives a request for collaboration from "Happily Ever Drafter," who has framed the response as a reply to the letter.

Pretty quickly, Julieta has a sneaking suspicion that Ryan could be Happily Ever Drafter. But there is a certain romance in the unknown, and Andreu lets us blissfully revel in that mystery for a while longer. Thankfully, Julieta feels the same way and indulges in long conversations with her new pen pal. The letters inspire Julieta, fueling her imagination and helping her put pen to paper.

Having someone to freely open up to about everything is a beautiful thing, especially if that someone is completely anonymous. Not a particularly new revelation by any means, but one certainly worth reevaluating in this digital age of 15-minute fame, 24-hour news cycles, and AI chatbots.

The reader eventually realizes that all of Julieta's three Romeos could easily be Happily Ever Drafter. Within each relationship lies the possibility for Julieta to have three very different outcomes. The novel unfolds much like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. But which path will Julieta take? Who does Julieta want to be? No pressure though — because there are no wrong answers, and there is much delight to be had in the unexpected.

Woven throughout Julieta's story are precious moments of what it's like to be an American child of immigrants, flavored with the romantic spice of Argentina. Julieta learns what it is to play with the balance of fiction and life — it is imperative for a young author to live, if she wants to have anything interesting to write about. And, as fun as heartbreaking love is to imagine (and read about), every intimate relationship in one's life does not have to be a romantic one.

There is no subtle foreshadowing about who Julieta will end up with by the end of the novel — I genuinely cared for every single one of Julieta's prospective beaus. I imagine each reader will have their own bias and ship Julieta with any or all of these guys as the story develops. I can confidently assure you without spoilers that Julieta's endearing adventure has a very satisfying conclusion.

Alethea Kontis is a storm chaser and award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and teens.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alethea Kontis