“If you don’t know my life and my struggle, can we be sisters? Can a badass white lady like you make room for me?”
Juliet Palante has just come home to the Bronx from her first year at college, and she is trying to figure out how to come out to her Puerto Rican family before she moves across the country for a summer internship. She will be spending the summer in Portland working for Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower, the book that sparked Juliet’s feminist awakening. But when she arrives in Portland, Juliet quickly feels out of her depth. Her girlfriend Lainie isn’t returning her calls, Harlowe doesn’t seem to have a clear plan for her internship, and everything is unfamiliar. The longer she is in Portland, the less sure Juliet is about Harlowe’s brand of feminism. But the summer nevertheless introduces her to people and experiences that will open her mind in ways she never expected.
I was sucked into Juliet Takes a Breath right from the first page. The story opens on Juliet’s letter to her hero, who is a famous feminist writer. It is a heart-felt outpouring, and it is the missive that scored her the internship in Portland. By the end of those five pages, I was already in love with Juliet’s voice, as well as her passion and curiosity about the world beyond the place where she grew up. Her character really is the linchpin of the story, and her voice kept me with her even through some of the slower parts of the book.
Harlowe was not at all the character I expected. I was picturing a hard-charging corporate white feminist when I first heard about the book, but instead Harlowe is a mild hippie feminist who is all about auras and the power of the female body. If you are familiar with feminist literature at all, you will probably quickly realize that Raging Flower is a clear analogue for a real book. Indeed, Rivera thanks the author in her acknowledgements, since she in fact did an internship with her, and some parts of the book are based on Rivera’s own experiences. Harlowe, though a bit weird, is generally a likeable character. This contributes to the gut-wrenching awfulness of the climax of the story when she reveals just how deep certain prejudices can run even in people with the best intentions.
Juliet isn’t the only one who struggles with Harlowe’s brand of feminism. On page three of the book, I wrote myself the following note: “Are we going to challenge the connection between feminism and vaginas?” The answer is, eventually, yes, but not until page 197. Juliet is a naïve character, and there is a lot she is learning over the course of the book. Consequently, it takes nearly two hundred pages before her cousin points out to her that not all women have vaginas, and that centering feminist discourse around them can be exclusionary. Rivera generally does a good job of circling back around to eventually address Juliet’s misconceptions. However, I would encourage you to check out Weezie Wood’s review of the book, which critiques a statement Julie makes about Native Americans, which is never revisited. Indeed, while there are many Black and Latina characters, Native women are noticeably absent.
If this book has a difficulty, it is striking the right balance between educating and story-telling. It would also have benefitted from at least one more proof-reading pass; I caught many places where an extra word belied the fact that a sentence had been changed or rephrased. Rivera has crammed a lot of information into the book, and some sections can get a little bit didactic. However, integrating this material into a story will be far more accessible for many people than a Women’s Studies text book. Juliet also struggles with the language of the social justice movement. This is a good reminder for readers who are fluent in this vocabulary that they didn’t always know the terminology, and that there can be a big learning curve that can make people feel excluded. And for readers who are also new to this language, it introduces the concepts while also showing that it is okay to still be learning. So while this book is far from perfect, I don’t doubt that I will be recommending it often.