June 3, 2020
Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, Sisters, Complicated Family Drama, Own Voices
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The Vignes sisters are twins. They are light-skinned black girls, identical, and inseparable. They endure a childhood trauma, are forced to leave high school early and go to work, and eventually leave home (run away) together at sixteen. From that point, everything changes. The future finds them estranged. Desiree escapes an abusive marriage and returns to her small southern hometown to live with her mom and her dark child. This is difficult because the town celebrates light-skinned blacks and Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, Jude, faces racism within the black community. Stella decides to pass as white which means that she completely cuts ties with her past and her family. The Vanishing Half begins in the 1950s and concludes in the 1990s with the next generation (Desiree’s and Stella’s daughters).
Spoilers: I find that it’s difficult to discuss The Vanishing Half in a spoiler-free review. So if you do not want any spoilers, it might be best to read the remainder of this review after you’ve read the book. If you do decide to read on, I tried not to reveal any major spoilers.
Themes: The Vanishing Half is an ambitious and multilayered story that deals with several thought-provoking themes. I think the various themes are the most compelling part of the reading experience and will inform any book club discussion. Themes include identity, racism, colorism, class, education, gender identity, sibling relationships, passing as white, secrets and lies, loneliness, sacrifice, family, mother/daughter relationships, forgiveness, friendship, and safety. There’s definitely a great deal to ponder and discuss!
Writing: The Vanishing Half is told from four perspectives (two grown sisters and each of their daughters). The overarching theme of identity is expertly interwoven throughout the story. Just as I settled into the racial and sibling relationship themes of the book at about 30%, gender identity was introduced. At first, it raised a question in my mind about the author attempting too many themes because I couldn’t see how they would fit together. By the end, I was able to appreciate the effective way in which the author connected the theme of racial identity with gender identity. Another aspect of the writing which I noticed is that the first half is predominately character-driven and the latter half relies heavily on a plot-driven structure. I enjoyed the first half of the story the most as the second half seemed to ping pong around between multiple perspectives and locations. Others who read with me in an Instagram buddy read were not concerned about this and enjoyed the entire read equally. Although we did tend to agree that one particular meet up of characters in New York required some suspension of belief. Overall the writing is largely character-driven, engaging, and the change in perspectives is fairly straightforward and the narrative is easy to follow.
Characters: I love multigenerational stories and well-developed characters. Even though the story’s focus is on Desiree and Stella, we are provided backstories to better understand their childhoods and their parents. As the story moves forward, we become acquainted with the next generation of daughters. A huge aspect of the story for me is thinking about motives for Desiree’s and Stella’s decisions and behaviors. Stella is complicated and a bit harder to understand. I had an opportunity to hear Bit Bennett talk about the story and I gained a deeper understanding of Stella and her need for safety as a result of her traumatic childhood experience. When I think about Stella’s actions strictly from the driving need for safety, it makes better sense.
Title: I love a great title and this one captures the identity theme perfectly.
Overall: In many ways, The Vanishing Half is a challenging read because of its relevant and thought-provoking themes. I especially love a story from an “own voices” author. I’m also a huge fan of stories that have a reconciliation theme. At first, I felt the story fell short for me in this area. However, after I heard the author speak about Stella I rethought my position. The author shares that she has read many stories in which the person who passes as white is condemned, and she didn’t want that for Stella. Because the author didn’t condemn Stella, she felt like she didn’t need a redemption story for her either and focused on a realistic ending. It’s always interesting to hear an author discuss their work and I encourage it whenever possible!
Content Considerations: traumatic death of a parent is mentioned in flashback, transgender representation throughout, spousal abuse mentioned
Recommended: My opinion is that the buzz is real for this one! The Vanishing Half is recommended for readers of historical fiction (setting); for fans of family drama and multilayered, character-driven stories; for readers who appreciate thought-provoking themes of racism, prejudice, and gender identity; for those looking for an own-voices story; and for book clubs.
“Own Voices”: If you are an “own voices” reviewer, I’d love to read your review. Please leave a link in comments.
My Rating: 4 Stars
Meet the Author, Brit Bennet
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
Have you read The Vanishing Half or is it on your TBR?
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