Irish author Julian Gough claims he set out to write an "end-of-the-20th-century Jane Austen novel."
But Gough didn't take the "Bridget Jones" route and slap "Darcy" surnames on stiff-lipped, sideburned bachelors.
Rather, with a wink and a warm sense of humor, Gough created a literary lass who spins a romance with enough sass and bite to make its cheerful ending seem plausible.
"Juno & Juliet" (Doubleday, 270 pages, $23.95) is the story of identical twin sisters who leave home in Tipperary for their first year at university in Galway.
The modestly beautiful Juliet Taylor narrates as she and her twin, Juno, settle into a flat on the docks in Galway, gulp down their first real taste of freedom and cope with the "personas dramatis" of suitors beating a path to their door.
Before finding their own place, they stay with a distant cousin. Gough even manages to make this outhouse-equipped, cramped terrace house seem oddly cozy.
"The tea was actually grand and over the course of it our cousin slowly turned into a human being, although a very old, very religious human being with no sense of humour. That didn't stop her being very funny, it just stopped her from noticing the fact. We had to turn a lot of laughs into coughs, to the extent that she gave us both Hacks cough sweets. ..."
Underlying all is Juliet's subtle jealousy of Juno's easy assurance, and her feeling of estrangement about their differences.
"I should probably explain that Juno began to be beautiful around the age of fourteen and the process shows no sign of stopping. Her beauty refines and upgrades itself constantly. At the time this story begins, she has just turned eighteen and it's almost ridiculous how beautiful she is."
The equally compelling supporting cast includes a drunken playwright, a mouthy theater director, a passionate literature professor and another pair of misunderstood twins.
Gough turns everyday dilemmas into appealing glimpses into the human condition.
Without naming personal specifics, Juliet reveals herself through her tumultuous impressions. She's disappointed at first by college: "The only constant was the white noise of complaint. I gradually got the peculiar impression that they'd all been promised a three-year holiday in Disney World but had been brought here by cattle truck instead."
Gough has a knack for not suffocating with praise those things held dear. At one point, Juliet has dinner at the home of her teacher (also her love interest). The father uncorks a cellar treasure, but not without a disclaimer on the elitism of wine:
"Well, it's a monstrous world of charlatans, snobbery and (expletive), but at the heart of it all is some lovely booze."
It's an endearing tale, not contingent on place, but all the richer for it. At one point, Juno performs a play in a "challenging" theater, while Juliet assesses:
"By the time a line of dialogue had made its lonely way from the front of the shed to the back, there was always the danger that the language would have evolved and the audience's descendants wouldn't understand it."
But the premise isn't trapped in a confining comedy of manners. Though the story's hard to imagine without its western Irish roots, the hardy characters and their tribulations seem timeless.