Book Reviews

Review: The Vanishing Half: A Novel by Brit Bennett

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My Interest

I read and liked The Mothers by Brit Bennett enough to give her work another try.  In addition, it was in the “Skip the Line” section of e-audio books–first come/first serve on some of the books with the longest waiting lists. Finally, in my new job at a Community College there is a big push to read diverse authors. So three good reasons to grab and listen to this book.

The Story

In Mallard. Louisiana, where fair skinned “Negros” (as society called Black Americans in years before Civil Rights) twin sisters are so fair complected that when they move to New Orleans as young adults, one of the sisters will try and succeed at “passing” as white. The town’s “Negro” population had such a preference for that very light skin color that the other twin rebelled by marrying a man who was so dark skinned he was “blue black. The lives of the two sisters are the majority of the story, but in time the story of their daughters (each an only child) is told. One, whose father sadly proved true the adages thrown at her mother about dark skinned men being “no good” and the other was born into a white home in a wealthy part of Los Angeles. The daughters’ stories require the reader to accept a coincidence that while not impossible, is very nearly so. Let’s say 98.9% impossible. Meanwhile, another person is “vanishing” from an old life. This is the part of the story that gets all those “Best Book of the Year Awards.” If you can’t guess this secret you need to pull out that Woke Bingo card I’m so fond of invoking.

My Thoughts

I found the twins story poignant and believable. Sadly, I did not buy the second, or “modern vanishing” as I’ll call it. Why? The reason for the “modern vanishing” could be “fixed” or “removed” whereas the twin could only live life looking over her shoulder and without her family.  She had to deny her entire ancestry, ethnicity, and self. Yes, the “modern vanisher” lived without family, too, and for a while had to deny “self,”but for that person, things were eventually “corrected.”

While I did not agree that it was a parallel to the twin’s life of “passing,” I did come to have real sympathy for the “modern vanishing” character in some ways [trying desperately not to do spoilers here] and that is a testament to the power of the writer’s words. Though I could not muster anything but an eye roll for that character’s family, naturally, being Evangelical Christians. That’s become the ultimate woke cliche. Time to widen the net if you want to blame religion for everything anti-woke. That is a stereotype and I thought those were bad? EVERY fundamentalist religion or sect (really every human group of any kind) has awful, bigoted. people–and every fundamentalist religion has kind, sincere, loving people.  Believers of all stripes are just humans. Stop using this cliche already.

Also, the “danger” the “modern” character was in was entirely self-inflicted (by making purchases of certain “things”). Whereas the passing twin had the danger unimaginable in her childhood–danger that passed unbidden through her childhood home’s front and back doors, at no time was the modern “vanisher” presented as in real danger except from those things purchased “on the side of the road” (shall we say–trying to avoid spoilers). Both “vanishers” made choices and both made the best of them–I did admire that.

I’m not always a fan of dual or shifting timelines, but for once I really admired the way the author cycled through the story lines and timelines–it moved at a fast pace, insuring that the book held my attention from start to finish (in spite of my eye rolls here and there).

Little Stuff

There were some truly silly things that caught my attention that an editor or intern-fact-checker should have fixed. An El Camino was a pickup truck back when only the highway department had “crew cabs”–it did not have a backseat, but she mentions the backseat of it twice. It bugged me.

I also wondered how a member of UCLA’s world-class track team had time to run around to show and hold a job and still get into med school. And, while in med school how was time found to do research on the brain in addition to coursework and labs? I smell Hermione’s two-places-at-once spell in Harry Potter here! Silly.

Then there was a medical procedure that could not have been done as “outpatient” but very nearly was. What?? How?? Oh well. Minor thing.

Finally, I may have heard this wrong, but did she really write that Betty Davis and Joan Crawford “trafficked” in soap operas and melodrama? Very, very odd choice of word, if it is correct.

My Verdict

4.0

For A True Story of “Passing” see:

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Life on the Color Line by Gregory Howard Williams

For Another Fictionalized Life “Passing” see:

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Passing by Nella Larsen, this edition has an introduction by Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Vanishing Half: A Novel by Brit Bennett

  1. Certainly lots to discuss here! I wish she had focused on the sisters….so much to unpack. And that she had spent more time resolving their relationship. When she introduced the trans storyline I thought it added too much to the story of that we were getting a bait and switch….maybe a sequel might have worked better because it was so rushed toward the end…hopping from location to location. Also, I’m tired of the cliché stereotypes! It begins to smack of an author agenda.

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  2. Don’t think this is one I’d enjoy, but you reviewed it very well (yeah, sometimes it is SO hard to adequately review a book without getting into spoilers)! I appreciate you calling out the author on cliche stereotyping. It’s so prevalent, as you say.

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  3. I’ve seen advertisements for this novel and was trying to decide if I should put my name on the waiting list at my library. Your review is so thorough and gave me lots to think about. Thanks for the irritating things you pointed out. It seems all the newer novels have plenty of them.

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  4. Well done for keeping spoilers out: tricky! I felt like the main storyline was still the sisters, but yes, it’s a shame on the modern person’s background. It feels at the minute that such characters almost have to have the “standard” back story and lived present that such folk in the real world have to present in order to be accepted, which is an interesting parallel if that’s so. I did like this book and I have The Mothers TBR. My review here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/book-review-brit-bennett-the-vanishing-half/

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    1. I think the whole “background” has become a Trope. Evil Christian Parents trope….blah, blah, blah. I liked the Mothers and this book–just an eye roll in there this time. Thanks for reading. Off to read your review.

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    1. Thank you! It’s not the job of my dreams, but it’s keeping my head more than above water! And, the co-workers are nice. It’s just hard have an hour + drive each way for so little $ when gas is now so expensive (expensive for the U.S. anyway–cheap anywhere else)

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