Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the bestselling historical saga of race, privilege, family, and identity

Brit Bennett’s second novel, a national bestseller, deserves all the attention it’s been getting. Spanning over three decades, from the Jim Crow South through 1980s California, it centers on two sisters and their daughters, and how American society’s intense focus on skin color warps the natural course of their lives. 

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins: identical, but not alike. They come of age in 1950s Mallard, Louisiana, a Black farming community too small for any map, and whose residents take pride in the lightness of their complexions. At sixteen, both girls flee their hometown for New Orleans—they have reasons—and their lives diverge not long after. 

By 1968, after an abusive marriage, Desiree returns to Mallard with her “blueblack” daughter, Jude, whose presence stands out and startles everyone in town. After cutting herself off from her past, Stella, meanwhile, has successfully passed into white society and lives with her white husband and blonde daughter, Kennedy, in a wealthy LA neighborhood. When Jude and Kennedy happen to meet as young women—in a way that manages not to feel contrived—it has major repercussions.

Bennett draws her characters with empathy while making their flaws very plain; the story depicts a variety of relationships especially well and packs a punch with its emotional realness. The story movingly explores contemporary issues of race and gender identity and the costs incurred when abandoning one’s earlier life for a new, different persona. The dialogue feels pitch-perfect, and the story moves with engrossing momentum as the mystery builds about whether Stella’s carefully built lies will unravel. This is an outstanding work of fiction, a thought-provoking literary saga that everyone should read.

The Vanishing Half was published by Riverhead this summer. I read it from a personal copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review.  As the cover indicates, the novel has been a #1 New York Times bestseller and the Good Morning America book club pick for June, and a few days ago it was chosen for the fiction longlist for this year's National Book Award.

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