Review by Frank Plowright
Juliet seems to be in her teens, smart and a New Yorker with a Puerto Rican heritage, yet hasn’t yet come out to her family, knowing the trouble, disappointment and denial that will bring. She’s very taken with a philosophical book on lesbian empowerment, and contacting the author with a passionately honest fan letter results in the offer of an internship in Portland. From the beginning, it’s an eye-opening learning curve.
Gabby Rivera firmly believes in a confrontational approach, and uses language provocatively from the beginning knowing it’s likely to offend some people, and the attitude, if not the terminology, applies to several of the cast. They do and say what they like with no consideration of other people’s feelings, happily tell others what they should read, see and feel, and have no hesitation on calling someone out as aggressive when there’s a hint of any other opinion. Juliet moves between them as an ingenue.
It feeds into why Juliet Takes a Breath is likely to be a polarising adaptation of Rivera’s novel. It can be read as a primer opening up a new world for someone only just coming out as gay, or as a prescriptive and judgemental set of attitudes about what someone should also be if they are gay. Rivera has no shortage of cultural recommendations fed into Juliet’s steep learning curve, to the point where no matter how much one might agree that A People’s History of the United States is worthwhile reading, the feeling of being lectured is inescapable. On the other hand, perhaps younger readers might appreciate the tip.
Because so much involves Juliet being lectured/advised, Celia Moscote needs to draw multiple scenes of people talking, and as Juliet is on every page, Moscote’s strength when it comes to character design pays off throughout. That’s extended to other people, who’re lively and distinctive also, and the strong feelings embedded in most scenes show another visual strength.
For a long time it seems Rivera has lost all sight of the story. It continues in terms of Juliet’s relationships, but the maguffin of the internship proves a transparent means of putting Juliet somewhere where her horizons broaden, and once in Portland there’s no pretence of it being anything else. Until, that is, a well foreshadowed bombshell is dropped. However, in story terms it’s wasted. It’s distressing for Juliet, but instead of building toward a confrontation or resolution it’s the one time where Rivera shies away, and instead Juliet Takes a Breath just slides to a predictable conclusion.
Overall the message is worthwhile, but the methods fall short.