Book Review: Juliet Takes a Breath

We’ve all heard of life-changing books. Books that, upon finishing them, give you a new lens with which to see the world. Colors become brighter, everyone seems nicer, every problem you ever thought you had is solved, and all kinds of other sweet clichés. Personally, I don’t think Juliet Takes a Breath is one of those books.

At least, not yet.

Unlike books that provide us with epiphanies, Juliet provides readers with only clues on where to find them. You’ll be left with questions that may lead you to a future revelation, but don’t expect one to be nicely packaged for you by the end. It might be different from what we’ve come to expect out of books, but honestly? I think that’s its best feature.

Juliet Takes a Breath is a 2016 young adult novel by Gabby Rivera. The story follows Juliet Palante as she begins a summer internship with her idol, feminist author Harlowe Brisbane. Getting the internship? Easy—one passionate letter and it’s done. Getting to the internship? Not so much. Not only is she leaving the Bronx for Portland—an area so foreign her family often forgets it exists—but she plans to come out to them the night beforehand. Whatever happens, at least she’ll have a magical, gay and feminist as hell summer, right?

To be honest, reading this book was difficult. The fault is not due to Rivera’s writing in any way. It’s crisp, and Juliet’s voice is unique and easy to follow, all while retaining that dizzying sense of going back-and-forth on ideas that many baby gays go through while thinking about their identity for more than five seconds. Yet that’s where my difficulty came in; the writing didn’t make Juliet hard to read, the fact that it was just too damn relatable was.

There were so many times I couldn’t help but laugh at how, as ridiculous as some of Juliet’s reactions were, I knew they were real because I’d done them myself. Gawking at Oregon’s unique brand of white hippies? Saying screw the bus and then getting lost? Having “three heart attacks” just to drop a note to a cute girl? Been there, done that.

Even other characters felt familiar in eerie ways. When Juliet meets Harlowe for the first time, it felt as though I was being reintroduced to her. My mind read one line of her dialogue and said oh boy, here we go again. If you’re non-white, identify as LGBT, and have existed in one feminist space for more than three minutes, you’ve met a woman like Harlowe. Take for that what you will.

Don’t be mistaken, though. Juliet Takes a Breath is enjoyable whether you find it excruciatingly relatable or not. There’s a little bit of everything in there: humor, drama, romance, adventure. I didn’t find myself bored or unengaged in the story at any point.

Out of 274 pages, only two details truly caught me off guard. The first is the fact that Juliet’s story takes place in the early 2000s. This detail affects some character interactions and overall understanding of the setting, but otherwise won’t break the book if you miss it. I’d simply assumed Juliet was a fellow 2016 baby gay. The second detail is also about time—specifically, how much time passes during the plot. Juliet Takes a Breath is about this one summer in Juliet’s life, so the entire novel happens over the course of about nine weeks. When this fact truly hit me, I found myself for a moment thinking that this was a lot to happen in such a short amount of time.

Then I remembered what a whirlwind my first ten weeks at university were and I go, “yeah, you know what, that actually sounds about right.”

Gabby Rivera has done a wonderful job of creating a character who you want to cheer on matter what, whether she’s relatable to you or not. The questions Juliet asks herself will stick in your mind even after finishing the novel. Don’t be surprised if you start experiencing deeper thoughts on subjects like feminism, sexuality, intersectionality, etc. Don’t expect any straight answers either. With such vast topics like those, everyone will have to go through their own journey first before reaching some semblance of a conclusion.

I can’t call myself a proud, radical and self-loving feminist yet, but who knows what the future holds? Juliet didn’t, and she turned out pretty good, so I think I’ll be good too.

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