Stephanie reviews Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

juliettakesabreath

I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days, but I have to admit that once I started reading Juliet Takes a Breath, I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, raged, and wondered at Juliet’s antics and her naiveté, and fell more in love with this book every time I turned the page.

The novel’s protagonist is Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican college student from the Bronx. She’s pretty sure she’s lesbian, and has been reading her feminist idol Harlowe Brisbane’s Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, to help her learn more about feminism as well as her own sexual orientation. On a whim, Juliet writes Harlowe a letter and the author responds with an invitation to Portland to work as her intern for the summer.  After an awkward dinner where she comes out to her family, Juliet hops on a plane to Portland to try to figure it all out.

Harlowe is every white lesbian feminist hippie stereotype rolled into one. I have a feeling this was purposeful, since a good portion of the latter half of the novel is spent questioning Harlowe’s intentions and the one egregious act that sends Juliet away from Portland for a few days.  Still, Rivera’s characterization of Harlowe is hilarious as well as fodder for serious eye rolling. For example, when Juliet starts her period early, Harlowe tells her “My cycle is probably going to mentor yours.” Another gem:  After Juliet experiences a few intense days, Harlowe declares, “Not talking about a break-up can totally lead to a yeast infection.” There’s more of this, but again, I think the stereotyping is intentional; Rivera’s purpose is to question the universality of feminism and sisterhood, and Harlowe is the vessel through which she works through these issues in her novel.

My favorite character is probably Juliet’s cousin Ava, who calls Juliet out on her obtuseness after she flees to Miami to process what happened at Harlowe’s reading at the bookstore in Portland. My favorite line: “Girl, c’mon you could have realized that she was some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone.” Welp. I have to admit, I’d been waiting for someone to say this to Juliet the entire novel.  Regardless, Ava helps her to understand that queer Brown communities just might be the place where she can be her entire Puerto Rican, feminist, queer, curvy, self.   Ava takes Juliet to the Clipper Queerz party, a Black and Brown people only space, where it’s “less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.”  Black and Brown folks are often accused of being exclusionary when we carve out spaces for ourselves, and Rivera does a great job of making it clear why these spaces are necessary for our mental, emotional, and yes, physical health.

I really loved this novel. However, there were a couple of times where I shook my head in disbelief as I was reading. For example, while Juliet’s naiveté is mostly endearing, there are places where it’s a bit over the top. How has she not heard of Chicana feminists Cherríe Moraga or Gloria Anzaldúa? Even her white feminist lesbian girlfriend Lainie seems to have a better grasp of Latina activists than Juliet, given her knowledge of Puerto Rican history and Lolita Lébron.  I was also a little troubled by the scene where she bleeds all over the bed at Harlowe’s house. Let me be clear, the bleeding wasn’t my issue, but who on earth tries to clean blood off of sheets using deodorant? Juliet is 19, not nine, so it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t know how to get a bloodstain out of her sheets.  There were a couple of other minor snafus as well, (the novel was preachy in places, and we don’t know that the novel is set in 2002 until halfway through), but these issues don’t detract much from the story.

All in all, this novel is a welcome addition to lesbian literature that focuses on Latina experiences. It’s a “fish out of water” type bildungsroman, with a Queer Brown twist. Does Juliet figure it all out in Portland? Is she able to reconcile all the parts of her intersectional identity? Can all women truly be sisters? I can’t promise that Juliet Takes a Breath offers tidy answers to any of these questions, but I can promise that you’ll have the time of your life finding out.

 

Casey reviews Give It to Me by Ana Castillo

giveittome

Doesn’t it always seem that the books that you have the highest expectations for are the ones that let you down?  That was my experience reading Give It to Me by Ana Castillo, this year’s winner in the bisexual fiction category at the Lambda Literary awards.  This novel left me with a lot of mixed feelings, ones even two months or so after reading I haven’t managed to sort out.

Give It to Me is one of those hard to describe books.  The tone is all over the place.  On the one hand, it’s kind of a romp, with the main character Palma Piedras’s bisexual sexcapades featured throughout the story and lots of random antics, like being an extra in a Tommy Lee Jones movie and randomly meeting a Dalai Lama-like Buddhist guru who gives you life advice.  So at first the novel feels like it’s going to be light-hearted and escapist.  It is definitely not.  On the other hand, this novel is aching with (be)longing, and Palma is so desperate at times beneath her façade it’s heartbreaking.  There is also some serious shit that goes down in this book, some of which shows Palma in quite an unflattering light.

This is a book by a Latina author about a Latina woman, and the tone got me thinking about Latin American music, which I hear a far amount of because both my partner and a good friend are Latino.  Sometimes what feels really foreign to me about that music is the combination of melodies that sound happy, and lyrics that are sad.  Often sad Latin American music doesn’t sound sad to me.  I felt similarly confused about this book.  I think it’s quite likely this is an entirely cultural issue, and that my mixed feelings are a result of my white cultural and racial background.  I’d be interested to hear what Latin@ readers think about the tone!

At times, Give It to Me is laugh-out-loud funny: Castillo has a dark, biting sense of humour that straddles the border between comedy and tragedy, much like the tone of the book.  This was definitely one aspect of the book that I liked.  Only a few pages in, I was chuckling to myself while reading.

This book also had a lot of smart, real things to say about gender, race, (bi)sexuality, and class.  One of the more interesting parts was when Palma was thinking especially about being mestizo, a “Native red-brown” in comparison to a black friend/lover:

She’d have given anything to be that color. Or white as his porcelain toilet. Either black or white. The in-between thing hadn’t worked out in her most recent incarnation. The brown woman was taken for the chambermaid in hotels or the housekeeper .. . . Did she speak English? Spanish? Would she nanny for them? Did she clean windows? Maybe it was the look of the future owners of the world but not yet.

Despite gems like that, about halfway through the book I began to get tired of the meandering / lack of plot.  I thought maybe in the second half the novel would pick up and would start going somewhere plot-wise, but I figured out three quarters through that what I was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, and then that felt too late to re-evaluate and change my expectations.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Palma ends up pretty much where she started at the end of the book, but it is a disheartening end when you’ve followed a character make bad decision after bad decision, fuck someone new every time as a coping mechanism, and then never learn anything.  It’s not even that Palma has “lost her way”; it’s that at forty-something she has never found it.  If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is.

One last note: there are two instances of sexual assault in this book (one with a man, another with a woman), both of which were dealt with (in my opinion) in a relatively dismissive way.  The scene with the man especially was fairly graphic, and then there was little mention of it afterwards, which disturbed me.  Palma does enact revenge on the woman, although this is after continuing to date her (mostly for her money) for months.  I was pretty uncomfortable with how the book dealt with this.