Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“How could anything as huge as feminism be universal?”
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.
Originally published by Riverdale Avenue Books back in 2016, and hailed by Roxane Gay as “fucking outstanding,” Juliet Takes a Breath has been picked up and rereleased by Dial Books. As I noted in my original review back in January 2017, the book was a strong story marred by an unfortunate profusion of typos and extra words, badly in need of additional proofreading. Happily, the new edition has taken that story and polished it to a shine. Although I was reading an ARC, I spotted only one mistake. The new edition also removes some problematic lines that reviewers drew attention to at the time of the original publication.
Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming-of-age novel about finding your voice and discovering your identity. The book opens with the letter that Juliet wrote to famous feminist author Harlowe Brisbane in order to land her internship. As with my first reading, by the end of this five page introduction, I was fully invested in Juliet’s character, and mesmerized by her voice. She is in many ways a naïve character who learns a lot over the course of the novel, and the reader gets to go along with her on that journey. She is just beginning to grasp the language of the social justice movement, and readers can be educated alongside her, or if already fluent, reminded of what it feels like not to know or understand the terminology. While some sections are still a bit didactic, it is certainly more accessible than a textbook.
One of the most appealing aspects of Juliet’s character is her openness, and pure curiosity. Her hope for Portland is so bright, and her willingness to be open to new people makes the city her oyster. Although Harlowe isn’t exactly what she expected, she still connects with everyone from Harlowe’s primary partner Maxine to Kira, the “junior librarian” at Portland’s central library (professional quibble: I have never heard of a junior librarian. Nor do I know any librarians who go around flirting with their patrons while on duty, or making out with them in the stacks). We get to see the outlines of a true community growing up around Juliet, and her brief sojourn in Miami provides hope that her family will accept her and become part of that community in time.
In some ways, it was harder to read this book the second time around. The narrative builds towards Harlowe giving a big reading at Powell’s, during which she uses Juliet in an unforgivable way. Knowing that scene was coming only made it more of a punch in the gut. Worse still is watching Juliet care for Harlowe’s feelings in the aftermath of her big fuck up, rather than the other way around. Harlowe is more interested in being forgiven than she is in fixing the harm that she caused. The impact of the story is increased by knowing what is coming, rather than reduced by removing the element of surprise. Juliet Takes a Breath stands up well to rereading, and I am happy to be able to recommend it going forward without the caveats I previously attached.
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