Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Review by Micah Killjoy

Published by Penguin Random House LLC, Penguin Canada, September 2019

304 Pages, hard cover, $23.99 CAD, 978-0-593-10817-8

Ages 14-17, Grades 9-12

Young Adult, LGBTQ+, Contemporary Realism

Three dudes stood in the doorway. They bragged about their conquests over “some bitches from last night.” When boys talked it sounded like feral dogs barking. They fiended for attention, were always aggressive, and made me wish I could put them down.    

Raging Flower was both book and shield. I pulled it out, sighing mad loud. The main boy gave me a look. Whatever, papi culo. I couldn’t even with dudes lately. All they did was talk smack about how good they laid down the pipe. Anytime I ignored them I was both a bitch and all of a sudden too ugly or too fat to get it anyway. Neighborhood dudes sure knew how to slime and shame a girl in one swift move. Reason number five hundred and fifty-one Raging Flower was so necessary. Reading helped me gather myself, reminded me that I had a right to be mad. It felt like my body was both overexposed and an unsolved mystery.

It’s 2003 and 19-year-old Juliet Palante is a queer Latinx babe living in the Bronx who’s got a newfound power in her womanhood and can call herself a feminist. Or can she really? Does she actually know herself, understand her Puerto Rican heritage, or what, exactly it means to be a lesbian? And why does any of it actually matter?

From the outset, we’re pulled into Juliet’s world as she moves through her beloved neighbourhood, telling off catcallers, navigating the New York subway, and coming out as a lesbian to her family the evening before she leaves for a summer internship with author Harlowe Brisbane in the Pacific Northwest.

Harlowe is the author of Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, a cri de coeur on all things yonic and sacred and this book has empowered Juliet to claim ownership over her body and sexuality. As soon as Juliet touches down in the alien world of Portland, Oregon, it’s a whirlwind tour of culture shock, baby queer relationship drama, and Portland’s infamous brand of whiteness.

Juliet Takes a Breath is important for many reasons, not least of which is that it weaves critiques of 3rd-wave white feminism into the story. Anyone who has read Inga Muscio’s 1990’s feminist manifesto Cunt: A Declaration of Independence will immediately recognize Rivera’s riffs off of it in excerpts from the fictional Raging Flower. Rivera pulls no punches as she depicts Juliet’s complex relationship to both Harlowe and the text of Raging Flower. How do we acknowledge what our loved ones have given us, even, perhaps especially, as they fail us in so many ways? 

Many of Rivera’s characters and vivid settings jump off the page, but it’s when Rivera waxes poetic in descriptions that her voice sings. Even smoking weed becomes lyrical and funny.

This was not your typical dry-ass bag of regs littered with seed and stems that you got from so-and-so’s cousin up the block. No, this was manna from the weed gods. These nugs glimmered in the light with shiny crystals and red fibers that crisscrossed their fatness like electrical wires. The smell alone got me geeked…It was nice to not be in some white boy’s dorm room trying to clear a five-foot bong to Dave Matthews with everyone chanting, ‘Toke! Toke! Toke!’”

Still, there are moments when the story feels frayed. Time functions in explosive hiccups. Events inch forward then rush along before slamming to a stop again, leaving the reader winded. This is especially obvious during the last nine days of Juliet’s internship, which include a three-day cross-country round trip flight, an intense fling with a summer crush, and the conversation of closure with Harlowe. In some ways, the author’s treatment of time contributes to Juliet’s breathless self-discovery, but it can also feel like a jolt.

Despite this criticism, however, Juliet Takes a Breath is well worth reading for anyone who has questioned their politics, their courage, or their place in the world. Readers who enjoyed The Education of Margot Sanchez or Rivera’s YA graphic novel, America Vol 1 will find similar themes in this novel.

Micah Killjoy is a Creative Writing BFA student at UBC. They like reading and writing about history and daydreaming about decolonization, bad poetry and having manageable hair.

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