Before I get started, I want y’all to know that this book spoke to my soul and demanded it stand up and listen. I can’t think of a book that hit me harder than this one in a more memorable and genuine way. I also typed up about a thousand words for my first draft of this review, but realized doing so took away a lot of the impact that the story itself has. I think this is my fourth draft and maybe it’s not my best, but I hope it makes you want to pick this book up immediately anyway.
I meant to feature this for Standalone Sunday yesterday (and before that, for the final day of #DiverseAThon), but I got sidetracked with the state of the country and the reality that so many people in this nation and in my adopted city of Washington, DC have been suffering through this weekend. I am very proud to live in a city that has yet to falter in its overwhelming support for all those affected by the Trump administration, as I saw this weekend at the #NoMuslimBan protests at Dulles airport on Saturday and the teachers against DeVos demostrations outside the Capitol yesterday. I encourage everyone reading to stay up to date on demostrations near them, especially noting how many of you posted about the Women’s March. The fight is not over, and we need you now more than ever. Check out this article to find more upcoming marches near you that need as much help as they can get. These causes affect all of us, and it is crucial we take a stand.
This book stood out to me when I finished it on the one year anniversary of its release, and has stuck with me since then, because these marches are for people like Juliet and her fictional family, for Gabby Rivera and all of her real-life loved ones, and in the memory of Lolita Lebrón – all marginalized citizens who have taken a stand just by existing within these 200 pages. This is for them, and for you. (Thanks for reading, guys. I love y’all.)
Title: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Release date: January 18th, 2016
Genre: Young Adult – Contemporary
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.
Juliet Takes a Breath opens up with a letter from Juliet to the writer of her favorite book, Raging Flower. The fictional “Pussy Lady” manifesto is all about hippie-style, white-feminist-inspired, vagina-loving empowerment, and it opens up a whole new world to Juliet that she never thought was possible to her brown, curvy self. She’s just come out to her whole family a mere two hours before leaving to cross the country without them for the first time in her life, and the road ahead of her is ripe with possibility and the hopeful feeling of “hey, I know you don’t know yourself yet, but by the end of this trip you’ll totally have all your shit together.” It’s pretty sugar-sweet and optimistic at the start, but every little detail helps the character of Juliet blossom in a space that feels closed off to her true self. Lesbihonest, there aren’t a lot of safe spaces made for queer Latinas from the Bronx, and when this lady says, “Oh my Goddess, yes, come live with me in Portland for an entire summer,” Juliet hops on that train like the Devil is chasing her.
“Feminism. I’m new to it. The word still sounds weird and wrong. Too white, too structured, too foreign: something I can’t claim. I wish there was another word for it. Maybe I need to make one up. My mom’s totally a feminist but she never uses that word. She molds my little brother’s breakfast eggs into Ninja Turtles and pays all the bills in the house. She’s this lady that never sleeps because she’s working on a Master’s Degree while raising my little brother and me and pretty much balancing the rhythm of an entire family on her shoulders. That’s a feminist, right? But my mom still irons my Dad’s socks. So what do you call that woman? You know, besides Mom.”
The best thing this book does is open up a massive and impressive dialogue about what feminism is, what intersectional feminism is, what it means to be a feminist, what it doesn’t mean – all in under 200 pages. And that’s not even including the rest of the Queer 101 discussion it covers. A lot of it felt like a refresher to me after being actively engaged in the queer community (and, y’know, being non-binary & queer the rest of the time) but a great deal of it was also a reminder that there are still people out there learning about feminism, about queerness, about what it means to not fit in but also how to fight against barriers that keep you from being “normal” and how to fight for a space for yourself, why to fight for those spaces. Juliet goes to Portland to basically meet the entire cast of the Essential Dykes to Watch Out For and it’s amazing and I love it.
It’s not all pussies and rainbows, though – this book is at the core about fostering healthy, meaningful, adult relationships, and not just romantic ones. Juliet explores the meaning of love when it comes to female friendships, mentor/mentee relationships, the connections she has with the feminist movement in Portland and the queer community in Miami, and her undying love for her big, beautiful family. The whole journey of self-discovery when it comes to the meaning of love in all its complexities is clear and sincere with authentic, valid reflections on everyone involved in her life. Juliet recognizes that love is not just the way her pulse picks up when she listens to a song that reminds her of her girlfriend Lainie; it’s the picture her mother slides underneath the door of them together when Juliet was a little girl. It’s the butterflies in Juliet’s stomach when she meets Harlowe in PDX on her first trip away from home. It’s the skip of her heart when she first sees Maxine in the truck, the grounded sureness of holding onto Kira’s waist on her motorcycle, and the sense of community from being surrounded by hundreds of people whose lives were changed by Raging Flower just as surely as hers was. Love is spending hours late into the night reconnecting with her prima in Miami. It’s the feeling of realization that there is a safe space for a lesbian Puertorriqueña where she never expected to find one, and learning she is always welcome there. It’s coming home to a house built from the ground up with love that is everlasting. It’s Juliet learning how to take care of and show every ounce of love to herself.
“If it’s a phase, so what? If it’s your whole life, who cares? You’re destined to evolve and understand yourself in ways you never imagined before. And you’ve got our blood running through your beautiful veins, so no matter what, you’ve been blessed with the spirit of women who know how to love.”
Juliet’s story is a universal one, but it more than anything reads like a love story to a young Gabby Rivera, who needed a story that recognized the worth of female friendships and a healthy spirit, that understood the complexities of family with all of its heartache yet no less full of unconditional love, that highlighted her relationship with God the special, sacred space it holds in her heart, and that shined the brightest light on the importance of self-acceptance and self-love. There is so much of this novel that practically demands you dig deeper into her world, and educate yourself further with the books highlighted inside the text that are REAL BOOKS WITH REAL LINKS and TOTAL MUST-READS ASAP. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone I know for all that it did to change my life and make my heart and soul feel whole.
“I let go of everything I was afraid of and concentrated on my body. I spun myself over, spit out the water in my mouth. Used my heels to steady myself and flew right down with the current until it spit me out at its edge.
I lay there alone.
And in that moment, I finally knew what it was to just breathe.”
Book Playlist for Juliet Takes a Breath
(It took me forever to write this review, and I listened to a lot of music while I was gathering my notes & drafting this up You’re welcome.)
A Seat at the Table – Solange
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Ms. Lauryn Hill
Blonde – Frank Ocean
Baduizm – Erykah Badu
HERE – Alicia Keys
Acoustic Soul – India.Arie
One in a Million – Aaliyah
Dirty Gold – Angel Haze
Crazysexycool – TLC
The Best of Queen Latifah – Queen Latifah
Miss E…So Addictive – Missy Elliott
Greatest Hits – Selena
Lemonade – Beyoncé
West Side Story Original Broadway Soundtrack
Hidden Figures Movie Soundtrack
A lot of this music came from the book itself, as well as from Gabby’s Twitter feed, and from my favorite Spotify playlist that I keep updating whenever I hear something new that changes my life like this book did. I’d embed the playlist itself if I could figure out how to do it on WordPress. Curse you, confusing modern technology!
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Is there any music you listen to while you write reviews? Give me some recs in the comments below! Happy diverse reading!