Juliet Takes a Breath is a character driven book that has heart. At time it’s messy, complicated, but it’s a book I would have really related to when I was a teen.
When nineteen-year-old Juliet Palante lands a summer internship with her favorite feminist writer, she packs her bags and leaves the Bronx, the only home she’s ever known, to go to Portland for an experience she’s certain will change her world. A change she greatly needs when coming out to her family leaves her not so sure her mother will ever speak to her again.
As she embarks on a summer of breakups and romances, trying to work things out with her mother, eye-opening experiences, and, well, horrible ones, Juliet will ultimately learn that feminism is whatever she decides it is, and, as her mother so aptly puts it, only she can change her world.
Juliet Takes a Breath is a book that I would have wanted to read as a teen. There was something about Juliet that I deeply identified with. Whether it was her own development as a feminist, or her journey realizing that those we love are not perfect, or her re-evaluation of her toxic relationships, something spoke to me. I’m not sure I would have been as brave as Juliet to travel to do an internship with her literary mentor, but I think I would have wanted to.
I want to address the cissexism that is present in the beginning of the book. It is addressed later on as a part of Juliet’s development as a person and a feminist. I appreciated the careful conversations later in the book, as well as Juliet’s own acknowledgement of her words. But I just wanted to throw it out there.
Feminism and Growth
The Bronx comes alive underneath our fingertips in Juliet Takes a Breath. We see her home through our eyes, the colors and sounds coming alive. But I think what drew me most to Juliet’s story is her exploration of feminism in Juliet Takes a Breath. It’s messy. And it’s full of mistakes and accidental damage. But it felt real to me. From her letter to her feminist role model, Juliet wonders if this feminism has a place for her.
What a line. And that’s been something I struggled with growing up. Wondering where my place was as an Asian woman in the feminism I learned about in school. Juliet is a fat Puerto Rican lesbian. So Juliet’s own awakening process digesting second wave feminism and the necessity of queer, women of color, and intersectional feminism was especially relatable to me.
Something I really liked in Juliet Takes a Breath was the way Juliet feels like there’s a bar or a test to pass. When she first arrives in Portland she’s met with preferred gender pronouns and new language. Even though she has come for an awakening of sorts, she feels like there’s a bar she needs to pass under to become accepted. She struggles trying to figure out if her feelings are valid. And so there’s a lot of room for growth. But her initial feelings of wondering if she can belong really struck a chord with me and my entire life.
Family & Role Models
In many ways, Juliet has to come to terms with speaking up, with not letting others frame our narrative. Even if the ones who are trying, are those closest to us. Family is a big part of this story, even though Juliet spends much of her summer in Portland. Their reception of her coming out moment combined with her mother’s denial, effects Juliet deeply. There’s great love there, but there’s also great pain at not being understood.
I think that Juliet Takes a Breath is also a book about what happens when our role models are not only imperfect, but potentially harmful. There’s great power in someone who helps change our perspective, but like all people, we need to be able to realize when they’re being toxic. Whether they’re our role model, our mother, or our girlfriend. And Juliet struggles with this in all of these different lenses. She has to figure out her own strength, and how exactly she will combat it.
We can have problematic favorites. We can have problematic friends, but it’s about challenging those we love and seeing if they can rise to the challenge. And if they are unwilling to grow, still hurt us even knowing, then there’s a moment of decision in front of you.
No one can justify our own existence. In man ways it’s a book about finding your feminism. Something I’m still struggling with. It’s about that moment when we realize we have been excluded from the world in a conscious way. I remember growing up and wondering why I never saw ads with my face on them. And just thinking it was some sort of mistake, some sort of oversight. But it was a conscious one. One born of history, of prejudice, and violence beneath our skins. It’s the acknowledgment that we have hidden history and hidden injustices hidden in plain sight.
It’s hard to accept that someone whose words mean so much to us, inspire, and challenge us, can also deeply hurt us. Whether that be our mother, our mentor, or our friends. But Juliet Takes a Breath is a journey of how we choose the narrative. The moment we choose to speak instead of run away. The ability to challenge. We can choose to use our voice, because only we can change our world.