Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Source of book: Audiobook and book borrowed from the library.


This is a weird case where I listened to the first ⅔ of the book on audiobook, before switching to the print version for the last, so I could finish it faster. 


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. This book was on my own reading list, so I was glad that it became a selection for the club. 


The Vanishing Half is a book about identity. It raises some fascinating questions about how we form our identity. In particular, are we who we are born as, or are we the way others categorize us, or are we who we choose to be. In this book, the answer, to the extent there is one, is, “yes.” Yes to all of those, and yet perhaps to none of them as well. 


The story centers on twin girls, Stella and Desiree, whose lives take contrasting paths. They are born in a community of light-skinned African Americans in Louisiana, founded by a man whose father-enslaver freed him. (These towns still exist to an extent.) The residents engaged in a project to have as light-skinned children as possible, while disdaining darker-skinned African Americans. 


This didn’t change how whites viewed them, of course. Stella and Desiree’s father is lynched, for example, and they are still considered “colored” both legally and socially. 


Things change a bit, though, when Stella and Desiree are forced to quit school and help support the family when they turn 16. Stella, brilliant at math, wanted to go to college, and instead finds herself repeatedly sexually assaulted by her employer. Desiree just wants to get the hell outa town. So the two disappear, and go to New Orleans to make new lives. 


Formerly inseparable, the twins eventually are separated. Stella simply disappears after she finds a good job - by pretending to be white. She is able to “pass,” and so she just takes on the new identity. As we eventually discover, she marries her boss, has a blonde daughter, and lives the rich life in California. 


Desiree, in contrast, marries the blackest man she can find. He, unfortunately, turns out to be controlling and abusive (and deeply insecure about his darker skin.) Desiree once again disappears, returning to her hometown along with her “blue-black” daughter, Jude. 


Eventually, the focus of the story shifts to Jude and her blond cousin, Kennedy. (The story jumps around a lot in time, with details revealed throughout, so it is more about the focus than a linear narrative.) 


Jude, despite being persecuted as a “dark” person in a light town, finds her own identity. She is fast enough at running to get a scholarship at UCLA. While there, she meets a young man, Reece, who becomes her friend, and later her lover. Reece has his own identity secrets. He was born Therese, and ran away from his transphobic Fundamentalist family, changed his identity, and found a source of street steroids. (The setting is 1978, so options were...limited, and the term “transsexual” was still the term used.) Through Reece, Jude becomes part of a social circle centered on the drag queen scene in Los Angeles, and they essentially become her family away from home. 


While working for a caterer, Jude accidentally runs across Stella and Kennedy. Eventually, she is able to confirm her suspicions about Stella’s identity, and confronts her. Stella denies everything, but Kennedy realizes the truth. 


That’s kind of the basic idea about the plot. The heart of the book, though, is not about what happens to the characters, but on their own struggles over identity and truth and perception. And don’t get the wrong impression about the perspective. Bennett is certainly not concluding that identity is determined at birth. Far from it. But the three all interact. To some degree, our identity is a mixed-up amalgam of our past, how others perceive us, and who we choose to be. 


Related to identity is the question of belonging. How we identify ourselves and how we are identified by others very much determine our experience of belonging. Or of alienation. 


For Stella, she never really belongs. She is accepted as white, and to a significant degree, she is - becomes - white. But she never truly feels she belongs. She remains alienated from pretty much everyone throughout the book, including her husband and daughter. The secrets and the lies create the need for walls. Kennedy too struggles to find belonging - and to find her identity. 


In contrast, Jude finds her tribe in many ways. Her alienation is obvious - she is so dark even the average African American discriminates against her. But within the drag queen community, and with Reece - and eventually in med school - she finds community. Desiree has a disappointing life in many ways, but she at least finds ways to belong. 


A great quote that really stuck with me is this one:


There are many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.


We had quite the discussion in our club on this book, with some rather interesting thoughts about it. One mentioned a couple times was that the book seemed almost too short - it would have been nice to have had a whole book on each of the characters, because they were all so interesting. As a lover of Victorian literature, I would have been fine with a 900 page tome with more depth. Say, a modern day Middlemarch. However, within the confines of modern marketing, 350 pages may have been a practical limit to get the book deal. 


A related quibble was that we mostly get glimpses of the interior life, with much of the book being dialogue driven rather than introspection driven. I felt that Bennett was effective in communicating the inner life, but certainly in a longer book, it would have been interesting to take a deeper dive. This is also related to the larger number of important characters. The four main ones of Stella, Desiree, Jude, and Kennedy are the center, but some the supporting characters are almost as well developed. In particular, Reece and Early Jones (the bounty hunter who becomes Desiree’s partner) get a lot of attention, and the passages with Desiree’s ex, Sam, her mother Adele; and Stella’s husband Blake, and her brief friendship with Loretta, the first African Americans to force their way into Brentwood are all crucial to the story and themes. So there was a lot going on. 


The final issue was the question of Blake, who perhaps feels the most wooden of the characters. As my wife noted, perhaps Bennett had a hard time feeling a connection to a rich white guy. I felt he was recognizable - I have certainly met a number of people like him. He, like most characters, isn’t a bad person, but he is trapped in his own patriarchal and classist beliefs, and is never able to break through Stella’s barriers. 


Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Bennett’s writing is excellent, and her characters well drawn. This has been a theme over the last few years. Much of the best modern writing is being done by women of color, and many of my favorite reads in the last two years have been by women writing about these themes. (Just peruse my blog and you will see what I mean.) 


I should mention some of the things I liked particularly. Bennett brings the issue of colorism to life, and creates a memorable story about “passing.” It isn’t the first, of course - ever since the second half of the 19th Century, white dudes have written about it, for better or worse. (William Dean Howells at least wrote about interracial marriage - even if the couple did have to move to Europe at the end.) Later, during the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans wrote far better and nuanced books about passing. However, The Vanishing Half feels far more modern - in a good way - and thus resonates more for white readers more familiar with their racist uncles in the 1970s than their KKK great-great grandparents in the 1920s. 


Another thing that I loved was the way Bennett handled Reece, the rare example of a transgender character. This is definitely not a “the lesbian dies in the end” kind of story. Reece is also not a sidekick. He is neither an angel nor a villain, although he is a decent, kind, and admirable character. He comes across as thoroughly human, with his own hangups, insecurities, struggles, and passions. And, of course, nothing horrible happens to him at the end. 


Finally, the final theme, perhaps, of the book, is the need for growth, change, and flexibility. It is the characters who cannot or will not grow who end up in the saddest place. Stella in particular seems to resist positive change. On the one hand, she does go back to school, and finds some positives in a more feminist approach. But she also cannot push past her own fears even to admit to her daughter what Kennedy already knows about her past. It seems doubtful that she will ever actually make a connection. Not with her husband or daughter, not with her twin sister, and probably never with anyone. 


Kennedy too seems stuck in her past by the end, not really sure how to have a genuine relationship with anyone. Sam destroys his marriage because he refuses to channel his own insecurities into positive change rather than violence and attempts to control. 


The characters who do change and grow seem to find the most belonging and connection. Jude is open and honest, and accepts those on the fringe of mainstream society. She even makes more of a connection with Kennedy than Kennedy is able to reciprocate. Reece expresses himself in kindness and vulnerability with Jude, and learns to let her see all of him. Desiree learns to accept the love of Early, whose plodding and patient approach to life is a contrast to her former desire for excitement. Early overcomes his own history of trauma and abandonment and learns to give of himself in his own quiet way. In each case, growth takes place by accepting others that were previously marginalized, whether because of darker skin, gender identity, or marital status. 


As a final note, I should mention the audiobook. The only thing I hated was that it ended disks in the middle of paragraphs - occasionally sentences. I do not get this. If it really doesn’t fit any other way, just add a freaking disk, okay? 


That said, the narrator, Shayna Small, was outstanding. In particular, her regional accents, from Louisiana to Arkansas to the Midwest, to Boston, to my own hometown of Los Angeles, she nails them. Characters are easily distinguishable, including Stella and Desiree, who start out somewhat alike, and then diverge as the story goes on. That’s outstanding acting right there, truly inhabiting multiple characters. The audiobook is an experience in itself. 

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