I really enjoyed reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. Several bloggers I follow had recommended this coming-of-age novel and I thought it would be a good pick for my goal of reading more LGBTQ authors in 2017. What I didn’t anticipate was what a lively, energetic voice the character of Juliet would have. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would identify with Juliet, despite not being Puerto Rican or a lesbian. This novel truly was a breath of fresh air.
The bones of the story is this: Juliet is a freshman in college, and she’s just come out to her close-knit family in the Bronx the day before leaving for a summer internship in Portland, Oregon. She obtained the internship with feminist author Harlowe Brisbane by writing a beautiful, funny, soul-baring letter to her, which the book opens with.
I’ve got a secret. I think it’s going to kill me. Sometimes I hope it does. How do I tell my parents that I’m gay? Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people that breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be? And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with other girls, I don’t feel any shame at all. In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing. So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness? … You did this to me. I wasn’t gonna come out. I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.” Now everything is different.
While Juliet is in Portland she is dealing with the emotional fallout of her coming out to her family and also trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her first girlfriend. She’s researching forgotten feminist heroines for Harlowe and learning new terms like “PGPs” (preferred gender pronouns.) She smokes weed and drinks soy milk and flirts with cute baristas and librarians. She learns that while her idol may be an expert on feminism, she is still clueless when it comes to dealing with her white privilege.
What I really liked about this novel was the fact that we not only got to join Juliet on her journey, geographically and spiritually, but we also got to see a loving family grappling emotionally with her coming out. There are some honest, wrenching phone conversations between Juliet and her mom, and she finds a safe haven later in the book with one of her aunts and cousins on a trip to Miami, FL. I loved all the references to the music Juliet listened to – her description of Ani Difranco’s music absolutely cracked me up. (“Her music evoked images of Irish bagpipes and stray cats howling in heat.”) I loved seeing Portland through Juliet’s eyes. I’ve visited the city a couple of times and could see Powell’s Books and Pioneer Courthouse Square in my mind. I identified with Juliet in that I was once a fiercely feminist young woman in a conservative environment, eager to experience life in a more liberal place. When I got to my small liberal arts college I, too, felt out of my depth with all the new-to-me terms and language people were using to describe themselves. I liked seeing her wrestle with her lesbian identity, her feminism, and her brownness, trying to find a place for herself where the intersection of all three identifiers gets messy. All sorts of characters in this book are earnestly trying to be good to one another, which is a refreshing tone in modern fiction. It was funny profane, and sweet. I think this book would be a lifeline to a young person trying to deal with their sexuality. It’s an excellent pick for anyone looking to diversify and shake up their reading. I’m glad I read it.
For a brilliant take on this book, check out Naz’s great review here.
Have you read Juliet Takes A Breath? Do you have any other recommendations for a coming-of-age story or a novel by a LGBTQ author? Have you ever visited Portland, Oregon? Let me know in the comments.