The underbelly of America creeped me out; I’d assumed the violent patriarchy was some new bully we had to face, not some old devil who never got put down.
Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera
Nineteen-year-old Juliet Milagros Palante is home in the Bronx from college for the summer, but not for long. Her heartfelt fan letter to Harlowe Brisbane, author of the feminist manifesto Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, scored her a summer internship in Portland, Oregon. She’s torn up about being separated from her girlfriend Lainie—who’ll be working at her own summer internship in Washington D.C. with the College Democrats—but at the moment, she’s even more torn up about something else: she wants to come out to her family before she gets on her plane to the West Coast.
And come out she does. By the time she leaves, despite the support of her younger brother, her father, and a handful of other relatives, her mother can’t bear to look at her. So she heads off to spend her first summer away from home—the first summer after 9/11—with that hanging over her head. Juliet Takes a Breath is an entirely straightforward coming-of-age story—but unlike so many of the coming-of-age stories we’ve seen before, it’s an #ownvoices story about a queer brown girl. It’s populated with wonderfully layered, complicated, real people, and it’s narrated by an honest, questioning, intensely thoughtful young woman.
It’s about Juliet figuring out who she is, finding her relationship with and place in the larger world. It’s about her finding her voice, deciding when she wants to speak and when she wants to listen; when she wants to move over to make space for someone else, and when she wants someone else to move over and make space for her. It’s about her discovering how empowering feminism and sisterhood can be, but also seeing the complexity and conflicts within the feminist movement—largely in regards to well-meaning white feminists who have some work to do on their own internalized racism. It’s about the importance of intersectional feminism, and about how some people can’t see that because they’ve never had to. It’s about seeing a movement as a glowing safe haven, but then realizing that it, like the rest of the world, is peopled by a broad range of inhabitants, some nurturing and supportive, some who are more about image and status and posturing.
The more that Juliet learns and thinks and grows, the more complex the world becomes—she sees people who think that they’re speaking universal truths, but she also sees that the idea of a universal truth is predicated on the assumption that everyone is beginning at the same starting point, with the same worldview and ultimate goals. She has to contend with the fact that her hero is a person with flaws, and she has to decide how to react to that—should she walk away, or should she acknowledge those issues while also appreciating her hero’s strengths?
She deals with the immediate aftermath of betrayal, and with moving forward after the immediate pain has ebbed. She deals with history—both personal and in books—with the wonder that can come from discovery, but also the anger that comes with the realization of what’s left out of textbooks. She finds belonging and acceptance and warmth, she experiences both first and second love. She deals with silencing and erasure, with the power of seeing yourself reflected in media, with the importance of being seen. At first, she finds ways to insert herself into the narrative, but the more she learns and thinks and grows, the less satisfied she is with that. She realizes that she wants—she deserves—to be visible enough to be included in the first place.
Juliet deals with religion and belief, with belief versus religious instruction. It’s about racism and gender and sexuality, about the power that comes from understanding and connecting with those who came before. It’s about family, about female relationships; about trying to do right, but about messing up. It’s about making choices, every day, between standing up and digging in, or walking away; and it’s about how all of those choices are personal, that we all have to figure out our own answers:
I know you’re not a Magic 8 Ball. You’re just some lady that wrote a book. I fall asleep with that book in my arms because words protect hearts and I’ve got this ache in my chest that won’t go away. I read Raging Flower and now I dream of raised fists and solidarity marches led by matriarchs fueled by café con leche where I can march alongside cigar-smoking doñas and Black Power dykes and all the world’s weirdos and no one is left out. And no one is living a lie.
It’s an entirely lovely, powerful book. I say that as a middle-aged white lady who wishes it had been around when I was Juliet’s age—and I can only imagine the joy and empowerment it will give to readers who see their own lives reflected in her journey.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.