From the first time I heard author Gabby Rivera’s laugh and her description of her book on Brene Brown’s podcast “Unlocking Us”, I knew I had to read Rivera’s debut novel “Juliet Takes a Breath”. After a mix-up at the local bookshop where I ordered it from was cleared up (they handed me the graphic novel and not the hardcover I ordered – and I have nothing against graphic novels, I just wanted to read all of her words first), I went home and devoured the entire book in two and a half days. In 2020, I had a bit of a reading block and only read a grand total of seven books, so signing up for Cannonball Read this year for a full Cannonball was a big challenge to undertake. Thankfully, the journey began with Juliet taking her queer, delightful, irreverent breath.
The story starts with a preface, a letter from Juliet to “legendary author” Harlowe Brisbane, the “ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff” who is “sure to help [Juliet] figure out this whole ‘Puerto Rican lesbian’ thing.” The first paragraph grabbed me into Juliet’s world with so much force, I almost (happily) got whiplash.
Hi, my name is Juliet Palante. I’ve been reading your book Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. No lie, I started reading it so that I could make people uncomfortable on the subway. I especially enjoyed whipping it out during impromptu sermons given by sour-faced men on the 2 train. It amused me to watch men confronted by the word “pussy” in a context outside of their control; you know, like in bright pink letters on the cover of some girl’s paperback book.
How’s that for an opener? And it just gets better from there. The preface spells out Juliet’s life in the Bronx. Not a bad life, but one where she’s on the cusp of coming of age…. and coming out to her family. Like literally, the actual chapters start with her plan to do it at dinner the night she is to fly across the country to start the internship the preface letter landed her. We meet her vibrant, loving, if somewhat “traditional” family at that dinner table. Her little brother, Lil’ Melvin a dreaming teenager with an affinity for Twix bars, her mother, doting but also distrustful of this “opportunity” her daughter has to fly to Portland, Oregon to work for free for a white lady. You can feel her mother’s love for her leaping off the pages, but you also get an immediate sense that this coming out process will not be smooth for either of them.Her father is there, too, but I never got much from him. Which, honestly, is refreshing in a story about a lesbian. He was a supportive father figure, bucking the tired trope (which, of course, comes from too much real life, but also is not the entirety of the lesbian experience) of the abusive father who gives his daughter “daddy issues” that she “becomes a lesbian” to deal with. Heaven forbid you just have women who like to fuck and love women. But no, he just loves his daughter, and I love that. Then there’s Titi Wepa, the badass NYPD cop, Titi Mellie, and Grandma Peralda. That’s a whole lot of female empowerment and family love, and it’s awesome to be brought so strongly into that world by the strong writing, expressive dialogue, and the food and music references throughout the book.
The coming out doesn’t go well. (I know, quelle shock for a book set in 2003. Or, unfortunately, even now, though it is getting better. But I digress…) Juliet’s mom takes it the hardest, leaving the table and locking herself in her room, refusing to talk to or say goodbye to Juliet. I lost my mom last year to COVID, so that part hit me especially hard. Like….make sure you say goodbye. Always make sure you say goodbye. But it’s not that kind of book, so that particular kind of tragedy doesn’t happen. But Juliet and her mom are clearly estranged as she’s setting out on this big adventure and it’s very hard for her to process while also suddenly living in a very different world. A white woman’s suburban attic, this local celebrity of the lesbian and feminist movement. And Juliet is gonna have many adventures in Portland, finding so many different ways to take a breath.
The chapter titles, a few of which are followed by a relevant quote from Harlowe’s book, gave hints about some of those adventures:
- PGPs and Big Punisher
- Celesbian Skin
- On The Road To Polyamory and God
- Ain’t No Party Like An Octavia Butler Writer’s Workshop
- Operation: Wallow In My Sadness Forever (proceeded by the logical follow up chapter, Operation: Still Wallowing In My Sadness)
- And one of my personal favs, When All Else Fails, Take A Fucking Nap
In the course of one summer, Juliet criss-crosses the country a few times, learns about gender pronouns and polyamory, queer and womanist theory, how “white lady feminism” leaves many women behind and even her heroine Harlowe was not exempt from that and needing to learn and do better. Juliet learns not just how to take a breath, but how to find her breath, center herself in it, and in herself. She learns about love, in many different forms, and how it can and usually does change. But that even when you’re afraid someone doesn’t care about you, they may, but they may have their own struggles that get in the ways sometimes. It doesn’t pull any punches and packs a helluvan adventure into it’s 304 pages. I love that people were held accountable for shitty behavior. I adored that there were so many strong and flawed, fully human women in this book, and also that there were other different identities represented, as well, such as powerful, positive trans characters. I love that there was fierce love, and support, and surprising places of acceptance and a believable arc or Juliet’s coming of age. Her questions about what was happening to her and around her and inside of her resonated with me, even now at 20+ years her senior, and are still valid and important in this day and age.
I wish I had this book in 2003, back when I was a fledgling queer, shamed into not embracing my all my enby-goodness. But I’m so grateful it exists now. I still feel Juliet with me, encouraging me to get an undercut and kiss women who are awesome no matter if it’s forever or not and to keep learning and growing and breathing and being true to myself. I know I’m blessed with myriad magical humans in my life who support and love me now, but it took me over twenty years and so much heartbreak and trial and error to get to this place. If only I’d had Juliet twenty years ago. But the good thing is, we all have her now, and that, as Roxanne Gay described this book on the cover of it, is “fucking outstanding”.
(Also, I’m thinking of signing all my emails now with how Juliet ended her letter asking for an internship with Harlowe “PS: How do you take your coffee? This will help me decide if we’re compatible social justice superheroes or not.” I think Juliet would approve.)