Let’s face it: We’re all a little delusional. We may think that we are more (or less) attractive or talented than we are. We may imagine past exploits as more epic than they really were. For the most part, though, these self-deceptions are harmless and don’t interfere with our real-world functioning. Bianca, the protagonist of Jennifer Givhan’s second novel, Jubilee, on the other hand, has amped up her fantasy to Calvin and Hobbes proportions. She believes that her lifelike, yet quite inanimate, doll named Jubilee is her baby. Her living baby.
Many people with PTSD color outside the lines of typical social behavior, and Bianca packs quite a bit of trauma in her trunk, as we see in chapters that pingpong between the eras “Before Jubilee” and “With Jubilee.” Bianca’s first love, Gabe, is abusive, and over the course of the novel, we see their relationship swing back and forth, with transgressions being met with forgiveness in ever-amplifying cycles until the relationship becomes unsustainable.
Fortunately, Bianca escapes and meets Joshua, a made-to-order Really Nice Guy who is willing to indulge her illusion (as does most of her family) in the hopes that she will reintegrate her somewhat split personality. It doesn’t hurt that he is working on his master’s degree in family counseling. But the real world intrudes on their fragile truce between reality and fantasy, ushering in potentially devastating consequences not only for their relationship but also for the family they have so tentatively forged.
Givhan, who, like her protagonist, is a poet, paints a surrealist canvas with vivid colors, even invoking images from artists such as Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo. The richness of her language and her eye for nuance animate her depictions of both the bleak exterior landscape of California’s Imperial Valley and the bleak interior landscape of Bianca’s damaged soul. Through it all, Givhan has forged a compelling tension between psychological drama and romance that makes for a riveting read.