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book review

The bronze statue of Juliette Capulet stands near the balcony of her house in central Verona.MAURIZIO LAPIRA/AFP / Getty Images

There's a certain kind of vulnerability necessary in writing about personal experiences with romantic love. Many who have found themselves in its grasp will relay that the overwhelming feeling caused them to think, say or do irrational, even foolish things – things they may not necessarily want to share with the masses. It's no secret that being infatuated can make us stay too long in situations we shouldn't, hold out hope for things that will never happen and limit our opportunities to find something better. Glenn Dixon is familiar with this reality, and through his memoir Juliet's Answer, he has opened up his life – and his weary heart – to reveal his own foibles on the quest to find and hold onto that elusive, celebrated human emotion.

Dixon's unfortunate experience with unrequited love is in part what inspires his initial journey to fair Verona, the Italian home of Shakespeare's famous doomed young lovers, Romeo and Juliet. "I arrived … with a pocketful of questions," he writes. "I was here to learn something. Something about love and maybe something about Shakespeare." At the city's Casa di Giulietta, or House of Juliet, Dixon perhaps masochistically takes on the task of responding to the tragic heroine's mountains of mail, a strange onslaught of letters sent to her out of desperation from the world's hopeless romantics. (Thousands arrive at the office annually, and every single one gets a reply.) Out of a long burning interest in the play, and a feeling of being lost in love, Dixon diligently stations himself at a desk, acting on each plea for advice to mend what has been broken.

"Where is my Romeo?" asks one letter. "How will I find him?"

As one of Juliet's faithful "secretaries" (and the only man among his more experienced female colleagues), Dixon thoughtfully handwrites his replies to the lovelorn to varying degrees of success. While he struggles to offer strangers comfort and hope, he reflects on the pain, promise and necessity of our most inexplicable emotion. The shared loneliness provides him not only with much-needed comfort, but a deeper understanding of what romantic love really is and what it means to those who experience it. With each letter, he questions his own misguided choices, and in time, finds much-needed clarity and perspective.

Dixon successfully weaves his community experiences in Verona with the back story of his biggest relationship regret – a close, yet loosely defined connection to "Claire," a woman he long believed to be his perfect match. It's a romantic narrative near cringe-worthy in its inevitable disappointment, much like watching a disaster happen in slow motion, drawn out over many years. With its final crushing blow, Dixon again ends up thousands of miles from home, in search of a cure for his obvious melancholy. And even when readers find themselves yelling at the page thanks to Dixon's ill-advised devotion, it's hard to not admire his subsequent attempts to ultimately get love right.

Thankfully, there's lots of unlikely hope buried in the rubble of Dixon's broken heart. Some of the best sections of the book are those that depict Dixon, a high school English teacher of 20 years, introducing his enthusiastic class to the classic tale of Juliet and her Romeo. The students' interaction with one of the world's most celebrated stories is actually the most illuminating about the nature of love – its triumph, its tragedy, and even its absurdity. ("So, like, how do you know its not just infatuation or something?") Looking at the text through their eyes renders it anew for even the most seasoned of readers, and reinvigorates an interest in its importance, beauty and cultural magnitude.

With Juliet's Answer, Dixon has gracefully entered into the tradition of travel writing meets memoir (think Eat, Pray, Love,) and despite his driving belief that he knows so little about the subject, he writes about love with admirable generosity, sensitivity and insight. He is able to relay both the history of the region he depicts and Shakespeare's well-covered writings with a deeply personal vibrancy, providing a fresh take on well-charted territory. Dixon has both a scholar's insight and a teacher's accessibility, and however vulnerable his confessions ultimately make him, he remains unafraid to reveal his flaws to get at a universal experience of heartbreak – one letter at a time.

All told, Juliet's Answer is a well-structured, inherently readable memoir with a perhaps predictable yet satisfying ending. Its overarching lesson will come as no surprise to anyone who has managed to do the work of mending a broken heart, but it is one that bears repeating regardless. Of course, you can't force true love. Its arrival is usually a happy accident, knocking on the door uninvited and only visiting when you're no longer desperately searching for it. Dixon's is a paradoxically heartwarming story of heartbreak, its core truth one that cynics might accuse of being earnest, but one that remains ever relevant.

As Dixon says, "maybe … what you need to do is love yourself first. Then, I guess, others can follow your example." Or as Shakespeare famously put it, "to thine own self be true."