My Rating: 5/5
I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
"Read everything you can push into your skull. Read your mother's diary. Read Assata. Read everything Gloria Steinem and bell hooks write. Read books about your body written by people who have bodies like yours. Read everything that supports your growth as a vibrant, rebel girl human. Read because you're tired of secrets."
I can't even bring myself to name all of the reasons why I love this book. If I did, I would probably have to write an entire essay, which, honestly, I wouldn't have minded doing a year ago while working on my Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies minor. That's because this book is an incredibly diverse and feminist YA novel, about a girl who struggles to find where she belongs. The novel unapologetically tackles many topics, from the importance of intersectionality to the underlying racism of white feminism, making it an absolute standout novel in YA that should be on everyone's required reading list.
Here are just some of the reasons that make Juliet Takes a Breath phenomenal:
The main positive of this novel is how incredibly diverse it is from page one, written by a queer woman of color, for queer women of color. Its protagonist, Juliet, is a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx who is also gay, and reading the story through her perspective is like a breath of fresh air. The novel is so rich with Puerto Rican culture, from the way Juliet describes her neighborhood and her life back home to the way she interacts with her family to the Spanish words embedded throughout.
The story isn't just intersectional in this way, though. Juliet ends up writing to the author of a popular feminist book, expressing how she wants to belong in feminism but often feeling like feminism is mostly just for white women. In response, the author–the illustrious Harlowe Brisbane–offers her an internship in Portland, Oregon, where Juliet learns more about intersectionality and feminism than she could ever imagine, and how the two correspond with her identity as a queer WOC. This book is such a good education on feminism and intersectionality, and weaves the two together so well throughout the story, showing how reliant each is on the other.
On being a good white ally...
With this, the driving theme of the novel focuses on the problematics and underlying racism of White Feminism. The novel frequently addresses the demand for POC women to have their own space, one where white allies don't speak up over POC, and teaches others how to be a good white ally in general... and how not to be.
One of the prime examples of this is in Harlowe herself, who is a typical hippy feminist white lady and who, like many white feminists, praises feminism and women-loving yet misses the mark on sitting back to let women of color speak about their distinct oppressions. This comes up throughout the novel, but her biggest blunder comes when, during a reading, she uses Juliet as an example for why she's not racist, basically using the ol' "I'm not racist, I have a Puerto Rican friend" card. She then went on to paint Juliet as a poor Puerto Rican who managed to escape the terrible, crime-ridden, violent neighborhood in the Bronx to be taken in under Harlow's wing, even though Juliet didn't really tell Harlowe anything about her life back home. Needless to say, Juliet learns to find her voice and tell Harlowe that this was in no way okay for Harlowe to do to her. This perfectly highlights to feminists how to not use POC as a token to make themselves and their feminism look better
It addresses “Mansplaining" and why it's extremely obnoxious.
Okay, so there’s this super nauseating male character in the book named Phen, who acts extremely know-it-all and superior over Juliet the second he meets her, completely going out of his way to patronize her and let her know that she doesn't truly belong. Seriously, I hated him like nothing else. He is the most venomous, toxic male "ally" that all feminists should avoid at all costs.
When they first meet, Phen is naked in Harlow's house (for some reason??), and when Juliet is noticeably uncomfortable at first, Phen acts offended and scoffs, Oh I'm sorry, does my naked body BOTHER YOU? (**Um, yes, you asshole. You're a male and, having that privilege, can't even understand the connotations of a dominating male body invading the personal space of a woman. Literally, shut up.) Following this, Phen only continues to exert his dominance by throwing out feminist terms that Juliet isn't yet familiar with, almost taunting her with them and using them as a weapon to show how much he knows more than her. At one point, he even questions whether she belongs in Portland and whether she’s truly gay. People like Phen are exactly what can go wrong with male allies, who make it more about themselves than about actually supporting women, and the book highlights this problematic behavior really well. And with that...
...it conveys the message that it’s okay to not know everything there is to know about feminism, and that this doesn’t make you any less of a feminist.
This is such an important aspect of the book. Going from the Bronx to Portland, it feels like a completely different world to Juliet, and there’s so much she feels she has to learn. But rather than scoff at her and make her feel bad when Juliet asks questions, Harlowe and many others encourage Juliet to continually learn, to question, and to figure out what feminism means to her. And this is what feminism should be about. It can often feel daunting coming fresh into feminism, especially depending on where you live in the world and what you identify as. There's so much to learn and take in. Along with this, feminism means different things to different people. There's no one way to be a feminist. And so I really commend the author for showing readers this through Juliet's own personal journey.
Some other things I liked about this book...
It paints a realistic coming out experience, where the parents are neither completely accepting at first nor completely unloving. Just before leaving Portland, Juliet spontaneously decides to come out to her family. While most everyone else is okay with it, her mother takes it harder. While Juliet does her internship in Portland, she misses her mother yet simultaneously feels that her mom doesn't truly understand her. Each time they speak over phone, they both feel a disconnect, that the other isn't really hearing the other's point of view. But over the course of this novel, Juliet and her mom gradually begin to open up to each other, showing that their relationship is stronger than anything.
I think with coming out stories, we're so used to vilifying the parents who don't always accept or understand their child's sexuality right off. But it's important to be aware that there are other coming out experiences that are more complicated and full of grey areas... and more importantly, this doesn't always make these kinds of parents "bad parents." When we vilify parents and coming out stories like these, it takes all of the learning and growth and underlying love out of the parents' relationship with their child, something this book brings to light and works to develop really well. I love how in the end Juliet's mom admits she's still not all the way there yet, but that she's trying, which just shows how much she really loves her daughter and wants their relationship to be okay. 💜
It centers around learning to navigate the cultural differences when traveling somewhere new, while always feeling like a part of you is still back home. I thought this was a really compelling theme in the novel. The story begins with Juliet dreaming of leaving the Bronx, certain that things must be better beyond it. But as soon as she's in Portland, Juliet feels like she's plunged into a completely different world, one where there aren't as many people that look like her, which makes her miss her home back in the Bronx. As the story progresses, Juliet realizes that, despite being in Portland, there's a certain amount of racism there, too, even in her mentor, which really challenges her worldview and what she thought she knew. I thought this was a really eye-opening turning point, as it just shows how racism is everywhere. We can pretend that it's better in some places, but we also can't be blind to the ways that racism still exists, even when disguised in various shapes and forms. Along with this, I liked how being in Portland just made Juliet that much more appreciative of where she came from.
There's a point later on in the story when Juliet's on her own and a bit turned around in the city. She takes a bus, only to find that it's full of people like her—people of color, from Black to Puerto Rican. She's so happy in this moment to finally be among other people who look and sound like her, to feel transported back to the Bronx, that she decides to stay in it for as long as long as she can, taking the bus all the way to the last stop and back again. I thought this was such a nice little silver lining for Juliet that served as a moment of peace and comfort for her, to remind her that no matter where she is, home is never too far away.
* * *Like I said, there were so many things I loved about this book and so many important takeaways that I thought the author integrated so well; if I were to discuss every one of them, I might as well write an essay. (Can I? Please??) This novel blew me away, and I'm so thankful for it and for the author to have written such a vibrant character like Juliet Palante. If anything, I hope this novel inspires all of the Juliets of the world. I hope it encourages them to go out into the world, to explore and discover who they are, and to make their voices heard, at the top of their lungs.