“The Vanishing Half” tells an intriguing, complicated story that illustrates the complexities of race in our country. It is both fascinating and frustrating to see how easy it is for Stella -- physically anyway -- to pass over into living her life as a white woman, while Desiree, who looks just like her, continues to face continued discrimination and loss.
Most of the first half of the novel is focused on Desiree, leaving Stella as a mystery. Even her twin sister, who once knew her so well, now knows nothing of her. But as we finally come to know Stella ourselves, we learn that Desiree did not know her as well as she thought she did.
She is a horribly fascinating character. Her desire for a better life, and her fear that she will be exposed and lose it all, are understandable emotions, but they guide her to choices that are often hard to fathom and stomach. As her life story unfolds, we see the hypocrisy she employs to protect her secret, the stubbornness and lack of sympathy that comes from her fear.
Though Desiree and Stella are at the center of the story, the novel changes perspectives throughout, jumping not only between them but to other characters as well. Seeing the twins through the eyes of other people gives us a more well rounded view of them. The most powerful perspectives are those of their daughters, the ones perhaps most impacted by their respective choices. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is as much about Jude and Kennedy, two cousins now living in very different worlds, as it is about their mothers. The choices of these two women reverberate beyond themselves.
-- Rebecca Mariscal
Brit Bennett’s novel takes themes from Nella Larson’s groundbreaking works “Quicksand” and “Passing,” (published in 1928 and 1929, respectively) and asks what passing looks like in modern America.
Bennett’s work follows three generations of women as they grow apart and work to remake connections with one another. Bennett shows how one decision impacts lives for generations.
“The Vanishing Half” is filled with numerous themes and plotlines: race, class, abuse, forgiveness, acceptance and societal expectations are a few. The one that most interested me was the idea of family. Throughout the novel we watch Bennett’s characters decide what family means for them. Jude, Desiree’s daughter, longs to find family. Her mother left her abusive father when Jude was a small child and Jude has not heard from him since. Throughout the novel she wonders about him and if he still thinks of her. Jude also wants to connect with Stella and her new family after a chance encounter with the aunt that she heard stories about but never met. While Jude and Desiree both work to connect with blood relatives they also realize the importance of chosen family.
One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Bennett does not give her characters and readers simple solutions to problems or answers to questions. The novel reflects real life as it does not resolve everything for the characters, suggesting that as they grow and new generations are born their story will continue. Even after closing the book for the final time, the novel stays with the reader as they ponder what happens next in the lives of the Vignes family.
-- Rachel Fergus
This month Rivertown Reads will be reading “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Set in the 1920s, the novel follows the story of a young woman who unknowingly frees a Mayan death god and journeys with him across Mexico to reclaim his throne.
Questions to consider while reading:
Amid the cultural backdrop of a newly-revolutionized Mexico, the story dives into Mayan mythology, connecting two pieces of Mexico’s history. What knowledge did you have of Mexico and its history before reading this book?
Casiopea remains firm in the sentiment she expresses within the first pages of the novel, that she is nothing like a princess in a fairytale, how does her independence and realism shape the journey?
How does the story weave personal, human conflict with mythological clashes?
Casiopea laments her bad luck, and the word is mentioned often throughout the novel. What role does it play in the end?
Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?