Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: "Juventud" by Vanessa Blakeslee

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Curbside Splendor Publishing for making it available!

The epigraph of Vanessa Blakeslee's emotional debut novel includes a quote from the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I feel so accurately sums this book up: "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

Growing up the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Colombia, Mercedes Martinez lives a life of privilege—a driver takes her where she needs to go, maids take care of her every whim, and she never wants for anything. Yet her life isn't perfect—her mother left when she was very young and never tried to get in touch, and what Mercedes really hopes for is true love.

When she meets Manuel, a passionate young activist who is firmly rooted in his faith and the need for radical changes in their country, she is instantly smitten. Manuel and his brother Emilio open her eyes to the plight of the poor in Colombia, and how she cannot simply accept her father's worldview on what is happening around her.

It's not long before Manuel and Emilio cause Mercedes to re-evaluate all that her father has told her about his life before she was born, and why her mother left Colombia and never tried contacting them. She begins to suspect that her father is far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined, and wonders exactly why he is trying to keep her and Manuel apart, instead forcing her to go to boarding school in America.

An act of violence one night changes everything, and she realizes her only option is to flee to America and leave her old life behind her. But as she grows older, her life is always shadowed by her suspicions and the events of her teenage years. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia to try and find answers, but is absolute truth ever possible, or just more questions?

I'll admit I know very little about Colombian history and the violence which occurred in that country, so I found Juventud both enlightening and disturbing. Blakeslee really captured Mercedes' voice so well, and I felt she gave the character complexity so she was so much more than a pampered teenager who suddenly found a conscience. I also found that she had a deft hand when it came to evoking the dichotomy of Colombia's beauty and the extreme poverty and violence affecting the country.

At times the plot moved a little slower than I would have liked, and yet I felt it rushed a bit when Mercedes went to America. I felt as if some of the other characters were a little less fleshed out, but this is Mercedes' story. At its heart, Juventud is a moving story about love and loss, and how our lives are shaped not only by what we see and what we do, but also by the things we don't say, the questions we don't ask.

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