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 definitely wasn't.
The conventional aspect of this book 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.
I 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 about 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 another gender.
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 to Piper.