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Do you remember the first book that changed the way you looked at the world? The one that made you question the status quo and your place in it? For Juliet, a chubby 19-year-old Puerto Rican queer girl from the Bronx, it’s Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind by Harlowe Brisbane. Juliet comes out to her family just before leaving to intern with Harlowe in Portland. She’s excited to learn more about radical feminism, women’s bodies, and the actual practice of being a badass queer lady, even if it means spending the summer all the way across the country from her girlfriend, Lanie.
Juliet Takes a Breath is the kind of book that gets the bittersweet pain and longing of growing up exactly right. It’s about the reality of your heroes being human, falling in and out of love, the fierce unconditional love of family, and learning to navigate the world in a way that allows you to retain your humanity. There’s a lot to love about this book, and especially about Juliet, who is at once fierce and vulnerable. None of the characters are bad people. They’re all complicated and sometimes they do things that hurt other people. There are a lot of interesting take-aways from this incredible debut–lots about white privilege and unintentional racism especially within feminist circles. Rivera makes a strong point about education and class within social justice communities as well, when Phen, Harlowe’s previous intern, scoffs at her for not knowing what a preferred gender pronoun is.
Juliet builds a lot of relationships during her time in Portland–with a cute librarian, with Harlowe’s primary partner, Maxine and Maxine’s secondary partner, Zaira. And it’s all a whole lot to take in–the questions about identity, gender, race, and relationship status. Rivera has done an impressive job of capturing the confusion and tender distress that comes with joining a community of people who are older and more experienced than you. To say nothing of the familial relationships that are often forged by arguments and hard times.
One of the most important things the book addresses is the racial dynamics in Juliet’s relationships with both Lanie and Harlowe. How do you react when the person you’re in love with won’t introduce you to their parents? Is it because Lanie’s afraid of how her parents will react? Or because she doesn’t want to introduce them to a girlfriend who isn’t white? And how will Juliet reconcile her place within the feminist community surrounding Harlowe’s book when its primary demographic seems to be white hippies? What does that imply about Harlowe?
This book was a lot of fun to read, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that means it is fluff. Rivera does a great job of illustrating the ways in which contemporary feminism fails to be intersectional, while offering her own perspective on how to begin the arduous task of fixing it. She uses Juliet’s relationship with Harlowe (and, to a lesser degree, Harlowe’s relationships with Maxine and Zaira) to imply that a great place to start is with clear and transparent communication. As with most coming of age stories, there isn’t much in the way of a driving plot–the action is in character development and growth. This is something the author does well. Her dialog crackles with wit and good humor, and her landscape descriptions are brilliantly coded to compare the diversity of the Bronx and the lack thereof in Portland. The title is also a clever nod to the main character’s asthma. Juliet Takes a Breath is an impressive first effort from Gabby Rivera, whose perfect prose and gorgeous characters took my breath away.
Juliet Takes a Breath
By Gabby Rivera
Riverdale Avenue Books
Paperback, 9781626012516, 193 pages