Award-winning Orlando writer Vanessa Blakeslee stuck close to home in her first book, the short-story collection Train Shots, capturing this city with a level of detail only a native could truly appreciate. She ventures much farther afield in her first published novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 300 pages). It's a coming-of-age tale that starts in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, and ranges through Israel, South Florida and Washington, D.C., in its tracery of a young woman's personal and political odyssey.
"Juventud is quite the departure from Train Shots, in subject matter as well as scope," Blakeslee admits. "Although there is a local connection: The dramatic questions that propel the novel arose when I was an undergrad at Rollins, where I'd become acquainted with several students from Latin America. They told stories of getting driven around by private chauffeurs in armed cars, having maids dress them until they were 12; one young woman in particular, from Colombia, told a harrowing story of how she believed her father had somehow been involved in a tragic incident with her first love, after which she was convinced to finish her studies in the U.S." This borrowed story is the general setup of Juventud, in which protagonist Mercedes chafes against the expectations of her father and Colombian society in general, but the story moves past this framework in surprising ways and to surprising places.
Through the slowly opened eyes of Mercedes, Blakeslee explores the politics of a country known mostly for its drug cartels, and the complexities of growing up, leaving home and coming back (though philosophically, Juventud has more in common with You Can't Go Home Again than Look Homeward, Angel). A robust sense of place always permeates Blakeslee's work; it's just not always the same place – which makes sense for a Northeasterner transplanted to Florida and an inveterate traveler.
"I'm addicted to travel and the way fresh environments shake us up," Blakeslee declares. "Writing that draws upon place, whether foreign or familiar, will likely be a fount from which I'll draw for as long as I'm dreaming fiction." Blakeslee's Train Shots was optioned for film this year; it seems certain this very cinematic novel will be as well.
While writing Juventud, Blakeslee "immersed [her]self in all things Colombian." Music and literature blog Largehearted Boy posted her playlist of music that influenced the book, and new litblog Real Pants featured a menu of foods that appear in the book. Bookmark It bookstore, where the author is a bookseller when not touring her publications, celebrates the official publication of Juventud with a party on the East End Market patio Friday evening; we can't guarantee that you'll get to move your feet to Grupo Niche and Shakira or nibble arepas and sip Fanta, but there's no doubt it'll be a fine fiesta.