I got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).
As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])
This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)
Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.
(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)
This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.
There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.
But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.