In Vanessa Blakelee’s debut novel, Juventud, we follow Mercedes Martinez’s journey from a naïve youth of Santiago de Cali, Colombia, to an informed, cynical adult living in DC with cracks in her past that she must address before she can move forward. The role of memory is a key theme here—raising questions not necessarily about what we remember, but about who informs our memory. Who tells our stories and the stories of our ancestors? How much can we refuse to see or accept about the people we love? From the first page, it is clear that Mercedes’s memories are fraught with inconsistencies and friction. We encounter this protagonist at the exact moment when the world between juventud (“youth,” in Spanish) and adulthood begins to crack open, and Mercedes is asking more questions about her mother’s absence, her father’s wealth, and the cast of characters that move in and out of the hacienda.
Known as Princesa by her Papi’s workers, Mercedes’s youth has been one of privilege, with housekeepers, a private driver, and jefes who work the farm. Her father’s job in “commodities and shipping” seems dubious at the outset, and while her life brushes close to guerilla warfare and drug cartels, it takes outside influences for her to begin to reconsider the stories she has been told. A sense of place is strong here as Blakeslee deftly portrays characters that are clearly tied to their surroundings and the dichotomies within their settings. Yet, though Mercedes was raised behind gates, she is drawn to the dangerous parts of the city where her fellow teenagers peacefully protest for social justice—specifically, she’s drawn to Manuel, a twenty-one-year-old, guitar-playing peace activist. He shepherds her along required coming of age moments, such as laying in bed on the verge of consummation, discussing scars and idealistic dreams for the future, that often transcend class and culture. Blakeslee takes the trope of a young girl falling blindly in love for the first time and pushes it to its limit.
Mercedes’s coming-of-age epiphanies are universal—so regardless of one’s prior knowledge or interest in 1990s Colombian drug cartels, the novel can be enjoyed as a search-for-self story, set against a unique and transmutable backdrop. Blakeslee finds a nice balance between story and exposition; acronyms for guerilla groups, while initially confusing, eventually become a natural part of the story’s landscape. In fact, it’s Mercedes’s observations about cultures unlike her own that stood out the most—moments like these that portray the differences between coming of age in Colombia and Miami:
How unlike Manuel and Emilio these young men were, glued to the TV or computer when not diving in the pool, their conversations revolving around American football and movies they wanted to go see. Beyond that, they acted uninterested in the world, immature. At their age, most young men in Colombia would be working, raising young families.
Reflections like these are plentiful throughout this novel. We follow Mercedes as she journeys from Colombia to Miami, to Israel and Washington DC, changing from an innocent and idealistic teenager into a cynical adult. Eventually, the reader begins to understand why it’s necessary for Mercedes to rewrite her personal history in order for her to leave the danger in her past.
The novel’s title brings to mind Kenneth Lonergan’s seminal play This Is Our Youth. Though Lonergan’s teenage characters live and work and play on the Upper West Side of New York City, they suffer seemingly similar plights as Mercedes—particularly Warren, one of the nineteen-year-old soul-searching protagonists, whose dad engages in successful but murky business dealings. As Warren describes him: “But my father is not a criminal. He’s just in business with criminals.” Though we never meet Warren’s father, we learn about his fate, particularly at the end of play in Warren’s closing monologue: “but when he was at the height of his powers, he totally lost control of his own daughter, and she ended up getting beaten to death by some guy from the world next door to us.” Like Mercedes and many young people, Warren’s sister was drawn to worlds unlike her own, and she becomes a sort of cautionary tale about the cost of rebellion. Mercedes, on the other hand, is a strong agent of her own fate, who leaves casualties in her wake. Blakeslee does not deliver a neat ending; instead, she provides a story worthy of deep philosophical discussion and debate. Months later, I am still turning over Mercedes’s story in my mind.