First sapphic love
Just Juliet by Charlotte Reagan is a fun read which straddles the genres between lesbian romance fiction and bisexual coming out books. Lena, a pretty high school senior with a popular boyfriend and who seems to have everything sorted, is strongly drawn to beautiful, damaged newcomer Juliet—the first lesbian Lena ever seems to have met. Lena thinks Juliet is the most beautiful and fascinating person ever, and is always happy around her, but they are just friends, right?
You gotta chase those shadows out of the closet, and come outside…
Coming out, or coming to terms with queer identity, is a particularly fruitful field for lgbt books for young adults, because YA and NA as genres tend to focus on figuring out just who you are—and in an lgbt romance novel, this identity drama focuses around the first strong crush on someone of the same sex. *Just Juliet* is no different, although Lena does mention having wanted to marry Princess Jasmine when she was five.
Where this book shines is in the way it depicts all the struggles of adolescent identity, not just sexuality. Lena thinks she’s pretty popular, her best friend is a cheerleader, she’s dating a football player and can always get the good boys, yet she describes her lunch table as “outcasts”, the girls who don’t quite fit in. She’s a good student who goes to the good parties doesn’t seem to know where she places in the social strata of her school, or what to do with her life when she graduates, or even whether she is close to her parents or not. All she seems to know about herself is that she is sarcastic, which isn’t much to hang an identity on.
Lena is both ambivalent and coasting, and Goth-lite outsider Juliet—with her very gay live in cousin and his boyfriend—represents a new world that has all the happiness and fun missing from Lena’s life. Juliet’s household, with her understanding father, seems like a new world.
But does that mean she’s a lesbian? Juliet obviously likes her very much, and there’s a distinct spark, but where does Lena go from here?
Grumpy, unreliable adolescents. That’s pretty realistic
Lena isn’t a massively likeable heroine. She’s dating a “summer fling” boyfriend she doesn’t have much in the way of feelings for, and stringing him along because having a boyfriend is convenient. When she gets sick of him, she passively-aggressively freezes him out. She often doesn’t seem to like her friends much. She seems lazy, bored and self-centred. Strangely, however, this is why the romance hits so hard. Suddenly Lena is having strong emotions and caring about someone other than herself, and may have to take risks for that.
Juliet, who is both desperate for friendship and scared of ruining it for love, yet very private and withdrawn, is a really interesting love interest. The romance is so damn sweet, with the girls aggressively friending each other but uncertain if the other wants to take it further, that when they get there it’s adorable.
Most of the book is happy in tone, so when things go off the rails, I don’t mind admitting that I cried real tears and hoped for the girls to figure it out together.
Some of the secondary characters are also really appealing—Juliet’s very damaged cousin, and his apparently bright and easy popular footballer boyfriend, represent both the appeal and danger of leaving heterosexuality. I did get tired of how incredibly and intrusively sexual the boys were all the time, especially as Lena inconsistently claims to hate PDAs but is all for the groping and suggestive comments with them, Lena’s best friend Lacey, a beautiful cheerleader who sits with the maths nerd and the teenage mother, who is a brilliant straight A student, and a preacher’s daughter and is openly and very casually heterosexually active, who is nasty and caring all at the same time, is also a lot of fun.
This isn’t just romance, but coming out and coming of age lit
Coming out is handled really well. Between the four major queer characters, and a story about a trans kid told by Juliet, all the risks and rewards of coming out are handled with different inflections. It’s something that can result in happiness and freedom, or in abuse and self-harm, and many shades of acceptance and reaction in between. The book never really shies away from the fact that coming out is an ongoing process, especially for a bisexual character who has to constantly justify not choosing one side of the fence while in a monogamous relationship
Unfortunately, that’s where this book kind of falls down. Lena, as narrator, is very insistent that she’s bisexual. Other characters also talk about her heterosexuality. But, as presented, Lena is never convincingly bi. She never actually seems to feel any attraction to boys, including her own boyfriend, no matter how any times she says “I still like boys.”
Is this a complaint? I don’t know. I’m in it for the young lesbians in love and the f/f romance, after all. As the title suggests, I’m interested in *Just Juliet*. But when there’s so much emphasis on the protagonist being a bisexual character, I felt like she should be more convincingly bi. Especially as bisexual coming out books are pretty thin on the ground.
Publication and availability
*Just Juliet* is published by Inkitt, who advertise themselves as “The Hipster’s Digital Library” (oh dear.) Poking around suggests they are a Wattpad inspired writing sharing site which publishes popular works and pitches them to trade publishers, claiming to “democratise” publishing. They’ve raised a lot of red flags on author and publishing sites—which is a shame, because Reagan is a very promising writer. The book also won the Swoon competition, which pops up as a NaNoWriMo sponsor.
Just Juliet is available on Amazon. It’s also on Kindle Unlimited, so if you have a subscription, it’s a free lesbian book for the reading. Or bisexual book. Whatever, Lena. We know you’re all about Juliet.
Recommend or not?
Overall this is a strong recommendation, especially if you enjoy immersing yourself in coming of age and coming out angst, or the anxieties and thrills of first love. You really could do worse than picking this up next time you’re looking for some good queer YA fiction or coming out books, if high school romance is your thing, or if you’re asked to recommend some good lgbt books for young adults. The f/f romance is pretty sweet, too.