Juliet Takes a Breath
by Gabby Rivera
I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time. The idea of a coming-of-age story for a Puerto Rican babydyke going on a quest to discover herself is pretty amazing. It’s also something that seems like a no-brainer, given how many coming out stories exist. But what sets Juliet Takes a Breath apart from a lot of those stories is that JTaB doesn’t follow the general beats of that story. It isn’t focused on Juliet finding her true love (although she does get to have some romance on the side of her exploration). It’s about her finding how to be herself and about finding her community.
Folded in with this search for community is the complication of whiteness within a marginalized community. Juliet sets out to find herself by becoming an intern for Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower (a book that comes off as the lovechild of Inga Muscio’s CUNT and lesbian separatist texts of the 70s). Juliet’s feelings are in upheaval because while she looks up to Harlowe and is learning from her, Harlowe’s whiteness and self-centeredness are a stumbling block that hurt Juliet so deeply that they threaten to really damage her sense of self and her future as an amazing writer.
Since the book is set in 2003, the reader is in for the beautiful but bizarre world of the early 2000s. Juliet treats us to some wonderful descriptions of her first encounters with the people in Portland. I took a pause as this part was developing, because it seemed a bit over the top, but when she moves into the feminist/LGBT communities, everything seems to click and feel real.
Granted, much of this is only speculation for me, but I remember what it was like in the early 2000s with the menstrual life force, fairies, sisterhood type of second wave feminism resonates. There was a lot of development of third wave feminism in the 90s, and Juliet encounters much of this through queer people of color, but I feel like some of the popular texts coming out at the time totally ignored this and focused on a more visceral violence against women and their experiences with their genitals.
Honestly, it was a weird time, and Juliet reacts exactly as she should. It’s relatable how she feels like an outsider, and everything feels like a test to see if she’s gay enough, has enough gay cred. Her growth is the narrative core, and I think that it’s significant that much of her greatest development comes through interaction with other women of color. Harlowe’s relationship with her is important, but Harlowe is very flawed, and Juliet really has to decide whether to keep that connection or not.
Rivera’s style feels familiar and occasionally poetic. Juliet is a keen observer of her world, but not one that describes things endlessly. Her words in prose drive us along, even though she isn’t always able to speak her mind. A few gems:
It was late and I was tired; I couldn’t even process the extent of her hippiness. It looked like the Salvation Army of bookstores, and who doesn’t love a little dig through salvation? (Re: Powell’s)
Phen had the kind of beauty that boys with attitude and slim bones get away with. They’re the type of boys that men like Alan Ginsberg fell in love with and bled out poetry for.
I was both uncomfortable and so proud; I’ve always loved my breasts. I’ve loved them for the way they defied gravity: full, brown, perfect. They held court over my soft belly, another part I was always aware of, another section of thickness that announced itself by daring to exist.
Libraries are safe but also exciting. Libraries are where nerds like me go to refuel.
I could practically feel Harlowe doing a dance of menstrual joy. Maybe America just swallowed all of us, including our histories, and spat out whatever it wanted us to remember in the form of something flashy, cinematic, and full of catchy songs. And the rest of us, without that firsthand knowledge of civil unrest and political acts of disobedience, just inhaled what they gave us.
I will say that I felt the first few chapters were a little slow compared to the rest. The story isn’t uninteresting at all; it just takes a bit of time to get into Juliet’s headspace, and that might well be me as a reader. Partially because I’m white, and partially because I’m not a fan of first person in general. But I literally read the latter half in the course of one night. Could not sleep until I’d finished it. JTaB hooks you that hard once you’ve gotten into it.
I would recommend this book all around. If you are a fan of contemporary YA lit, then you will enjoy it, even though the romance is minimal and Juliet is technically in college. If you liked The Hate U Give, you should like this book. If you are in the LGBT community and a young woman of color, this book is so important. If you’re just a flawed white woman, you still need to read this book and experience Juliet’s story.
The worst part of the book honestly is that it ends, dammit. And there’s not another by Gabby Rivera yet, although I’ve followed her on Goodreads, and apparently we may get some sci fi from her. (Bonus: the way Octavia Butler is dropped in so lovingly.) She also writes the new Marvel title for America Chavez, meaning that when I clear my to-read pile a bit, I have more reading from Rivera.
(For those who are not in love with the word QUEER, it’s used quite frequently to describe identity and community.)
I received a free copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.