Vanessa Blakeslee’s coming-of-age novel “Juventud” transports us into the world of teenager Mercedes, the half-Catholic, half-Jewish daughter of the rich, isolated hacienda owner Diego Martinez in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Diego is raising his daughter alone with the help of drivers and maids.
The mystery of Mercedes’ mother’s disappearance is just one of many enigmas with which the protagonist must contend throughout her journey into adulthood. Sheltered, naive and pampered, Mercedes is surrounded by a powder keg of drug traffickers and violence amid a country deeply divided between rich and poor, between the land owners and the desplazados. As she searches for love and involves herself in political protests, her father works to send her to an American boarding school to keep her safe from a world terrorized by the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia ) and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). But before Diego can ferry his daughter out of the country, Mercedes finds love with Manuel, a political activist and devout Catholic who changes her perspective on all she thinks she knows. As they plan for a tenuous future together, events conspire to change what Mercedes shakily envisions for herself and her young lover.
“Juventud” is a global story, taking Mercedes from Colombia to Florida, from California to Israel; her formative experiences highlight the ravages of Colombia’s drug war and the unintended consequences that the war inflicts on both rich and poor, those involved in trading and those who are not. Mercedes must navigate the many ways in which her past both impacts and informs her present, and the weight of decisions that cannot be undone.
Part love story and part mystery novel, “Juventud” is also a tale of the complexities of family, the strains on the ties that bind, and the expectations we place on each other that no one can adequately meet. Mercedes’ absent mother figures heavily into her childhood, reminding us that the impact of those who leave is often as significant as that of those who stay. The weight and meaning of love, both familial and romantic, serve in this beautifully woven narrative as a reminder that we are all works in progress. (Amy Strauss Friedman)
By Vanessa Blakeslee
Curbside Splendor, 300 pages, $15.95