I’ve always struggled with the coming-of-age genre. From my complete alienation from Holden Caulfield to my disappointing disconnects with lesbian and bi protagonists Molly Bolt (Rubyfruit Jungle), Sophie Winters (Far From You), and Cameron Post (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), coming-of-age has left me cold. Not so with Juliet Milagros Palante in Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. Juliet Takes a Breath is the vividly relatable coming-of-age novel I wish I could send to a younger version of myself.
The story bursts to life right from the preface, with a letter from Juliet to her idol Harlowe Brisbane. Juliet is a chubby, asthmatic Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx questioning what feminism means for her and on the cusp of coming out; Harlowe is the white feminist celebrity author of
Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. Juliet writes about her love for the book, her family, and her questions, and asks to come to Portland as a research assistant. Juliet quotes from Harlowe’s book in her letter, and it’s immediately apparent that Rivera excels at writing in different characters’ voices. From Juliet’s narration, to excerpts from Harlowe’s book, to snippets of other characters’ dialogue and letters here and there, each voice is distinct, which makes the large cast both manageable and memorable.
Seriously, the third quote we get from Raging Flower is, “You must walk in this world with the spirit of a ferocious cunt. Express your emotions. Believe that the universe came from your flesh. Own your power, own your connection to Mother Earth. Howl at the moon, bare your teeth, and be a goddamn wolf.” Do you feel like you’ve read this book? I feel like I’ve read this book.
Much of the tension in the book comes from conflicts within feminism (or between feminisms), including around trans issues, where Juliet is limited but not callous or mean cruel. When asked aggressively about her pronouns and her identity by a (presumably cis) guy, she narrates,
“I was surrounded by hippies and the only person in the world who knew my name on this bus was sitting across from me speaking another language. His judgment slid into my heart and carved out a space for itself. Trans? Ze? PGPs? These words weren’t a part of my vocabulary. No one in the Bronx or even in college asked me if I was a Ze or a trans. Was that even how they fit into sentences? I felt small, constricted, and stupid, very stupid. Phen dangled these phrases over my head. He was waiting for me to jump up and beg to be educated, beg for him to explain the world he inhabited.”
Instead of taking the bait, Juliet makes a note of topics to research for herself, along with questions about her own identity and a note to cry to her cousin a little. Later, Juliet gets a more caring and accessible explanation of the terms, and the book dodges a tone-policing, trans-demonizing by having a cis guy be the one to condescend about pronouns and by offering a better alternative.
Harlowe Brisbane’s well-meaning racism is a tension that simmers throughout the book, eventually coming out into full conflict and direct challenge. While the narrative doesn’t side with her cis-centric feminism, I wish it devoted more than a few paragraphs to confronting the transmisogyny implicit in her vagina feminism, especially because Juliet starts off so enamored. To the book’s credit, though, there is also a minor trans woman of color love interest.
I also wish one of the characters who are attracted to multiple genders identified as bi or another specific multigender-attracted label. One of Juliet’s aunts had a “lady friend” but refers to herself as “just [her name]” rather than any label, while Juliet’s cousin is doing the “no labels” thing or prefers “queer.” While these are valid choices for real-life people and a vital part of the world of queer sexuality, they feel limiting rather than freeing to me as a bi reader, because these sorts of depictions are much more common than explicitly bi+ characters.
I also had one small technical quibble: Juliet Takes a Breath is set in 2003, but there’s a moment when Juliet’s cousin checks her Facebook. In 2003, Facebook was on the verge of existing in a form current users might recognize, but it wasn’t as widespread or everyday as this line makes it seem. In the course of the book, it’s a small error that many readers might not even notice, but it did distract me and make me double-check the setting.
While Juliet Takes a Breath excels at exploring the tensions between Juliet’s developing feminism and Harlowe’s established “pussy lady” brand, where it really glows is in its explorations of more affirming queer and trans of color spaces. One would be a spoiler, but I have to point out that there’s a chapter titled, “Ain’t No Party Like an Octavia Butler Writer’s Workshop.”
I can’t recommend Juliet Takes a Breath enough. Its compelling voices, characters, relationships, and plot structures got my ADD self to read for three continuous hours, the longest in recent history. It’ll make the queer youth in you feel seen, whether you’re living your youth now or you had to get through your youth without this necessary book.
(And seriously, between Juliet Takes a Breath, The Revolution Starts at Home, and Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, I’m starting to think cover art by Cristy C. Road is the strongest predictor of a good book.)
Juliet Takes a Breath is available from Riverdale Avenue Books as an eBook for $10, and there are physical copies out there too. I got mine from Elliot Bay Book Company.