Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff.
Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?
With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.
I loved this book. I really, really did. Rivera takes on so many social issues and handles them so beautifully from the perspective of a Latina lesbian, which is a voice we don’t often hear in fiction. And it is fiction, as hard as that is to believe. When I read this book it felt too real, too vivid to be anything but the truth, and I was almost right — Rivera, in a Q & A session focused on Juliet Takes a Breath, says:
“When they tell you to write what you know, do it. That’s all this book is, me writing what I know. I was nineteen when I fell in love with my first feminist book. I was nineteen when I took my chunky Puerto Rican ass out of the Bronx and landed in Portland, Oregon.”
The details of Juliet’s adventures in Portland and other places are fiction, but its premise is the truth Rivera lived. That really shines through. This book is unapologetically queer, with a focus on queer people of color and how they live within the white-dominated country that is the United States. Juliet is looking for a queer, feminist paradise, and what she finds in Portland is very different from what she expects or even hopes for.
Juliet is a wonderful, well-rounded character. I found her naivete sincere, and I appreciated her willingness to learn new things and unlearn harmful attitudes. But Juliet isn’t just an empty vessel to be filled with queer knowledge — she’s her own person with emotional highs and lows and concerns that have nothing to do with what she deals with in Portland.
Harlowe is an excellent antagonist. I don’t even want to call her a villain; she’s too pitiful. All of the flaws of white feminism and white queerness are personified in Harlowe with how she treats Juliet and Maxine. I feel bad for her — and part of that ache is guilt, because I know that I, as a white feminist, have acted like Harlowe in the past. This book has a lot to say about the harm that white “allies” (even those armed with the best intentions) can cause, and how racism is more deeply internalized than any of us like to admit.
Juliet Takes a Breath had the potential to be a very angry book. I think it would have been successful as an angry book. However, Juliet Takes a Breath isn’t that. There are definitely moments of hurt, moments of rage, moments of betrayal — but every single one is followed (eventually) by healing. Juliet is learning not just about feminism and queerness, but also who she is as both a lesbian and a Puerto Rican. Her journey felt just short of magical to me, and I loved every moment of it.