Learning to Breathe: On Gabby Rivera’s “Juliet Takes a Breath”

By Sarah NeilsonOctober 27, 2019

Learning to Breathe: On Gabby Rivera’s “Juliet Takes a Breath”

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

JULIET MILAGROS PALANTE isn’t ready. She’s not ready to tell her parents that she’s a lesbian or that she’s in love with her best friend, who is actually her girlfriend. She’s not ready to leave her little brother and her titis and her parents in the Bronx and get on a plane to Portland to intern with her hero, the feminist icon Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. She’s not ready to be asked what her preferred gender pronouns are, or to learn about polyamory, or to go to an all-women-of-color writing workshop, or to eat acorn pancakes and vegan soy everything, or to question her assumptions about womanhood and gender identity and sexuality, or to learn about Puerto Rican history for the first time, or to fall in love with the world’s cutest librarian. She’s not ready for any of that, except she is. And so are we.

Recent years have seen an increase in discussion of how white the publishing industry is, but change has been slow to come. Juliet Takes a Breath was first published in 2016 by a small independent publisher, Riverdale Avenue Books. The novel became an instant classic, which itself shows a hunger for representation of complex, queer, Latinx girls. Juliet Takes a Breath isn’t the only story featuring such a character, of course; books like Myriam Gurba’s Mean (2017) and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017) — not to mention classics such as Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years (1983) and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) — clearly belong in this category. But while all of these works are fantastic, there is always room for more. Juliet Takes a Breath, now in a reprint edition from Dial Books, is finally getting the broader distribution it deserves.

Juliet is 19, a queer Puerto Rican college student from the Bronx, and even though she doesn’t quite know it at the start of the book, she has never been more ready to grow. A strong female character with a bold and joyful voice, Juliet must overcome numerous obstacles over the course of the story. She suffers from asthma, triggered by anxiety and the suffocating moments of life, such as when she is brutally stereotyped by her hero at a public reading at Powell’s bookstore. Juliet must unlearn shame, constraining gender roles, and harmful assumptions about her own and others’ identities; she must ask herself a host of questions about what she has and hasn’t been taught in school, how and why certain situations feel limiting or hurtful. In other words, she must learn how to breathe in a world full of constraints, but also of joy.

One of the most appealing and empowering aspects of Juliet’s character is that, in addition to self-doubt about her own identity, she possesses a shimmering self-confidence in her queer, fat, brown body and in her intuition, which she follows no matter how scary it might be. Juliet’s narrative is not linear or simple; she must navigate the messy, complicated waters of feminism and social justice in a white supremacist culture. Her journey is honest and realistic. Rivera has rendered a character and a world that will resonate with many readers, and she has done so with humor and tenderness.

The novel begins with the introduction of a closeted Juliet, who is secretly dating her “best friend.” Juliet is also is smitten with Harlowe Brisbane — or rather, with Brisbane’s book, Raging Flower. The excerpts from this fictional work are some of the most amusing parts of the novel:

Red meat comes from what the patriarchy calls “the industrialization of food” but in reality, it’s the separation of humanity from their own food production and from Mother Earth. […] It’s an absolute poison to the pussy. Don’t believe me? Go down on a meat-eater and tell me if you can’t taste the sadness.

Juliet, having never been exposed to a book so unapologetically queer-centric, feels inspired by its breezy taboo-busting. In a burst of excitement, she emails Harlowe to ask if she can intern with her over the summer for college credit. Thus begins a journey that will change Juliet’s life.

The “one wild summer” structure is common to many coming-of-age novels, but Juliet’s story is unique and captivating. She comes out to her family the same night she gets on the plane to Portland, a decision that is both painful and relieving. Juliet’s relationships with her family members — her close bonds with her younger brother and slightly older cousin, her aunts, and her mother — will prove to be important in this summer of growth, as will her relationships with the people she meets in Portland. Juliet takes off for her internship with a vision:

I had […] Technicolor dreams where white lesbians appeared like faeries to welcome me as I landed in the middle of a lush forest clearing. They draped wreaths of Oregon grapes and flowers around my head, my hips, and all over my body. The faeries gathered in a circle around me and swayed in rhythm to the trees and the winds. The white angels sang in harmony about couscous cures for all ailments and aligning our periods with the ancient cycles of the moon.

What, and who, she finds instead — a cute motorcycle-riding librarian named Kira, a group of women of color who host an Octavia Butler–inspired writing workshop, complicated polyamorous relationships, a pair of lesbian parents-to-be, several gender-nonconforming and trans characters — will help her grow into the person she needs to be.

In a 2016 interview with Remezcla, Rivera wondered what it is like "to encounter beautiful humans who defy everything you’ve been taught about gender and sexuality? That’s the kind of audience I was looking for and wanting to talk to. It’s okay to be on your path, it’s okay to be learning, and it’s okay to not know."

Rivera succeeds in spades with Juliet, but she also creates a rich tapestry of supporting characters that make the story feel alive. Juliet learns more about herself and her family members than she expected; the characters are complicated, and therein lies their authenticity.

By the end of the story, Juliet, while not renouncing Raging Flower, has picked up many more books about intersectional feminism, anticolonialism, and identity. The greatest strength of the novel, though, lies in Juliet herself. She loves hard, and people love her. Experiencing such a vibrant character can be invaluable, even life-saving, for young queer, brown readers. It can also be healing for adults who needed a character like Juliet when they were young and didn’t find her.

There are some traditional YA tropes here, namely the Perfect Love Interest in Juliet’s summer fling with the girl of her dreams. But her journey is not about finding romantic partners so much as it is about becoming herself: a total book nerd, a proud Puerto Rican, a brave facer of fears. Her radiant heart and voice are a gift to readers.


Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Necessary FictionRewire NewsBuzzfeed, and Kirkus.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Rewire News, Buzzfeed, and Kirkus.


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