A love story starring a woman allergic to human touch runs the risk of coming across as either a sermon promoting the benefits of abstinence or a lecture on the superiority of an emotional and intellectual bond over physical chemistry.
Neither is the case with Colleen Oakley’s gem of a novel, “Close Enough to Touch,” a witty, quirky and far more layered book than what initially meets the eye.
At its heart is 26-year-old Jubilee Jenkins, a housebound bibliophile who, due to a genetic mutation, is allergic to human touch. Having spent her childhood covered in itchy hives and welts, Jubilee goes in to anaphylactic shock following her first kiss just two weeks before the end of her senior year of high school.
After she’s released from the hospital, she skips her graduation ceremony and spends the next eight years as a recluse within the four walls of her New Jersey home, partly because of her near-death experience and partly because of the shame she feels upon learning the kiss was simply a cruel bet at her expense.
“Mostly, I just woke up every morning and lived my life like everyone else does – not thinking about the big picture, just doing my work for class, making dinner, watching the news, then getting up and doing it all over again.”
When her mother dies, leaving Jubilee with the deed to their home but no money, Jubilee must find employment so she can support herself. She worries about the dangers that await her in the workplace. “I think of all the ways people can make contact without even thinking about it: exchanging money at cash registers; handshakes; someone in a hurry pushing past you, their arm brushing yours.”
Oakley deftly tackles the kind of isolation and ostracism deadly allergies beget (in an author’s note, she draws a parallel between Jubilee’s plight with those who have life-threatening food allergies) as well as what it’s like to be at the mercy of others’ insensitive and careless behavior. Jubilee is only in danger when others refuse to acknowledge and respect her boundaries, and Oakley patiently unspools how Jubilee negotiates the spaces she finds herself in.
Jubilee’s transition into public life, and a new job at the community library, is fraught with anxiety. She must master the people skills and nonverbal cues she’s long forgotten. Wearing gloves to protect her skin, she must learn how to trust again and how to navigate relationships with real people instead of the characters of her favorite books. Still, Jubilee remains sarcastic and unflappable, and though at times her obstacles seem insurmountable, Oakley refuses to paint her with a pitying brush.
Jubilee eventually begins a platonic relationship with newly divorced single father Eric, who has problems of his own. His friends Dinesh and Kate were recently killed in a commuter plane accident, and Eric is now raising their son, Aja, whose creative energy gets him in trouble with the administrators at his school. And Eric’s teenage daughter, Ellie, who lives with his wife in Connecticut, refuses to return his texts.
Eric, in many ways, is as cut off from the world as Jubilee is, and just as Jubilee physically hides from the world, Eric cloaks himself in a denial that has him retreating to emotionally safer waters. One wonders which of the two is more ill suited for a romantic relationship.
Through fictional “New York Times” articles about Jubilee’s condition, Oakley sensitively explores disease as a research commodity, where members of the scientific community gawk at patients and ascribe them the same level of dignity and humanity as circus performers. “But for a human body to attack other human proteins,” says Dr. Benefield in one article about Jubilee, “would mean that the affected person doesn’t have one of those proteins — those building blocks that make us human. Technically speaking, does that make her not human?”
Which is exactly why years earlier, tired of the poking and prodding, Jubilee traded in her hospital gown for civilian clothes and quit playing the role of medical science’s favorite guinea pig. “It was clear there wasn’t going to be some magic cure,” she says, and she no longer wanted to be studied like she was “some kind of alien species.”
Eventually, when Jubilee stretches her wings and becomes an active participant in the community, she comes to realize that human engagement is not as awkward and painful as she once imagined it, and her long lost optimism returns. “The hope I used to carry around like Linus’ blanket, imagining a new life – a life without the debilitating allergy – was waiting just ahead. But there it is, blossoming in my belly, and I can’t dampen it.”
The end of “Close Enough to Touch” is satisfying without being predictable. Oakley does not force square pegs into round holes. Jubilee’s quest to find agency and autonomy, her longing for a healthy romantic relationship with Eric and her reemergence into society, are messy and complicated undertakings. And as Jubilee embarks on civilization, Oakley, in this irresistible novel, succeeds in examining the myriad ways in which people relate to one another, even at arm’s length.
More book reviews
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.