Book World: In ‘Jubilee,’ by Jennifer Givhan, a young woman’s…

Blackstone. 320 pp. $25.99

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It doesn’t take long for Bianca Vogelsang’s new boyfriend, Joshua, to discover some red flags after they meet at Cal State Fullerton. Bianca carries around a plastic doll she calls “Jubilee” as if it’s a real baby, pretending to feed it with a toy bottle. Bianca, the protagonist of Jennifer Givhan’s new novel “Jubilee,” has traumatic reasons for calling a doll her daughter, but even as Josh’s skin gets “prickly like he was watching a horror movie” while Bianca soothes Jubilee, he continues their relationship.

Yes, curiosity is a powerful force, but Joshua has his own burdens – he’s the legal guardian of his young nephew – and seems to understand that Bianca is more than just wounded or different. She’s also funny and smart and beautiful and alive. Bianca’s half brother Matty and his partner, Handro, also recognize that Bianca’s behavior stems from trauma – perhaps because she’s shown up at their Santa Ana house exhausted and bloody, requiring a hospital stay.

Once Bianca is healed and established in their home, the men accept Jubilee as part of their family. “Matty watched Jubilee while Bianca went to school and during her therapy sessions.” Bianca isn’t completely oblivious; she sees the way the men glance at each other. Still, she “needed this to be normal. And soon it was. They were family. And family protected each other.”

The book continues, alternating between two narratives – “With Jubilee” and “Before Jubilee” – that shed more light on Bianca’s situation. Her high school boyfriend, Gabe, gets her pregnant and insists she have an abortion, then sexually assaults her. Her family, mother and Matty included, then begin to act as if Bianca “was made of china and would break apart at any moment.”

Bianca will have to rescue herself, and what saves the book from melodrama (it’s well written, but heavy on emotion) is its through line: Bianca’s devotion to poetry. Like her idol, Sandra Cisneros, Bianca wants to be a voice for her people, the Mexican American working-class residents of Southern California, whose lives contain, like everyone’s, sadness and miscommunication, but also community and celebration.

Which, Bianca tells Josh, is what Jubilee’s name means: “celebration. I grew up Catholic, and we memorized all the verses. In the Bible, Jubilee is the time of release and universal pardon. Slaves set free. Land returned. Debts forgotten. All kicked off with a trumpet blast.” Bianca’s passion for the trumpet-blast verses of Emily Dickinson and Spoken Word, Shakespeare and Ana Castillo gives her a life of the mind that lifts her away – sometimes temporarily, sometimes for much longer – from the circumstances and memories that haunt her, helping her find her own release and pardon.

However, before Bianca can move on, she has to move through, and that means facing good truths, like her healthy love for Joshua, and hard truths, like a secret no one in the family wants to acknowledge. Givhan manages to tell a story about Mexicali culture that, by focusing on one young woman’s hope, avoids cultural generalizations and tells, instead, a story of family growth and personal triumph.

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Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”


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