This has been on my TBR for a few years now, but no libraries near me have had it. And this past year has been a strict one, financially, so buying it wasn’t necessarily an option for me. Anyways, in an exciting turn, it was chosen for re-publication this year! Which meant a few things. First, that a lot of book influencers started hearing about and reading it (always nice to see what other reviewers I respect think of a book I want to read). Also, that the new version was going to be available in my libraries since the re-issue was with a bigger publisher. Yes! So I had to wait for all the pre-order hype to grab everyone’s attention and make my “want” to read it even worse, then wait for the library to order it (and for it to come in), until finally about two weeks ago I was able to pick it up on the holds shelf. Woohoo!
“How could anything as huge as feminism be universal?”
In Juliet Takes a Breath, our MC and heroine, Juliet, is a 19-year-old Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx and secretly dating the love of her life, Lainie. When she writes a letter to Harlowe Brisbane, the author of “Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind,” she is chosen to come and work for Harlowe as an intern over the summer, things will never be the same. She leaves her home after coming out to her parents, in a confrontation that didn’t go as she hoped (leaving a rift between Juliet and her mother), and sets off into a world unlike one she’s ever known: Portland, OR. While there, she learns about everything from vegan food to using her mind to control her body’s reactions (in response to things like period cramps) to writing sci-fi to the myriad vocabulary and preferences that make up the LGBTQ+ community to the complications of adult love and intersectionality in feminism. And more than that, Juliet learns to own who she is, love who she is, and be who she is for herself and herself alone.
Many of my recent reads have really been banging, across the genre spectrum, for me. In the last few weeks I’ve read and posted for a number of 5-star reviews, like Well Met, SLAY, Sabrina & Corina, and now I have to add Juliet to that list. Oh my goodness, this is one of the most powerful coming-of-age, coming-of-sexuality, coming-of-womanhood and just general coming-of-power novels that I have ever read. The writing itself is a mix of poetic and hard-hitting, full of gorgeous descriptions of Juliet’s feelings and mystical feminine energy juxtaposed against clear and deservedly severe critiques of universal feminism (and general moments of tough love), with highlights from the unique staccato harshness of teenage slang. In fact, as I was reading it, like less than 30 pages in I would say, I actually wrote a note (yes, I take notes on my thoughts while reading – it helps me craft these reviews afterwards) that says “I already literally said out loud ‘this is gorgeous’ to myself, so there’s that.”
As for the story itself, it was so much more than I was expecting (and I can’t even lie, I was definitely expecting a lot). Juliet’s summer in Portland (including a very educational and fun weekend in Miami to visit her favorite cousin) was potentially just as eye-opening for me as it was for Juliet. She learns so much about what it means to be a woman, a queer woman (and whether she even feels like she can identify as a queer woman because that’s not a word she’s heard used before), a queer woman of color. And through her eyes, I too learned what that could mean and look like, how it can affect a person, as well. As a self-described baby dyke, Juliet travels into a world that is almost as opposite from the one she grew up as it could be, and even though it’s new and overwhelming and confusing and definitely a bit terrifying, and even though sometimes she hides in her room or runs away to deal with the heartbreak (like breakups and her mentor turning out not to be the shining do-no-wrong hero she’d created in her head) this learning-summer throws at her, in the end, she comes out stronger and more sure of herself and who she is and how she identifies and, possibly most importantly, how to respect other people’s experiences and journeys and let them take the lead in their own lives and that’s it’s ok (great, even) to ask questions. The humility needed to admit lack of knowledge, and the importance of the curiosity and self-recognition/confidence needed to ask and move towards understanding (instead of making harmful assumptions), cannot be understated. That, and Juliet’s personal growth across many spectrums, are the two primary, and perfect, focal points of this novel.
There were moments while I was reading that made me cringe, as I saw from the outside the way that Harlowe’s particular (universal) brand of feminism and womanhood was exclusionary, both racially and in a TERF-like way, in action if not in intention. And those moments made me, a white woman who would consider herself both a feminist and LGBTQ (I, like early Juliet, and not sure that queer is the right word for me to use to categorize my bisexuality), think hard about my own past. I know that there were moments when I made similar mistakes, because I have the luxury of being able to make them. And it is embarrassing and made me (really anyone, I would think, based on Harlowe’s reactions) want to be defensive…because that wasn’t my goal. But just because it wasn’t done on purpose doesn’t mean the damage is different/less. And the way this book highlights that, calls it out, asks for more and better from white women queers and feminists, is necessarily ruthless. I’m taking what I’ve already learned and implemented from those experiences and adding what I learned from this book, to continue work towards becoming the accomplice (vocabulary choice as requested by the author in the Q&A at the end) I should be. Discomfort is a chance to ask and grow – and I want to do that. But all that is not the point nor the note I want to end on. It’s a personal reflection that I wanted to share, since reading this prompted the reflection, and thus it was part of my experience with this book. But that centers the review and story on me, which it shouldn’t be. And so…back to the important things:
This stunning novel pulls no punches and tells no lies. This inside is just as striking as the cover art (and OMG what a perfect and eye-catching cover it is) and I feel deeply affected by it. The language, the intersectional feminine power, the acceptance/love (both self and otherwise), the celebration of what books and writing can do for us, and the hard lessons Juliet learns all come together to form one of the best, most honest, vibrant, forceful and extraordinary YA stories/heroines I’ve ever read. I know that by the end Juliet learns how to takes a breath, but her story straight stole mine away.
Please enjoy some quotes that struck me while I was reading:
“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.”
“We lived loud and hard against a neighborhood built to contain us. We moved like the earth pushing its way through cement sidewalks.”
“Libraries were where nerds like me went to refuel. They were safe havens where the polluted noise of the outside world, with the bullies and bro-dudes and antifeminist rhetoric, was all shut out. Libraries had zero tolerance for bullshit. Their walls protected us and kept us safe from all the bastards that never read a book for fun.”
“Mi amor, only you can change your world.”
“People you love fuck up […] You weed out the assholes from the warriors. Pick up on folks who aren’t soft spaces for your heart. Move with forgiveness but listen to your instincts when it comes to eradicating the unworthy from your spirit.”
“All the women in my life were telling me the same thing. My story, my truth, my life, my voice, all of that had to be protected and put out into the world by me. No one else. No one could take that from me. I had to let go of my fear. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. I wondered if I’d ever speak my truth.”
“‘I thought I needed you to change my world, […] But what I really needed was a push […] And now it’s on me. I gotta shout when I need to and ask more questions. And demand better of myself and everything around me.’”