Vanishing Half (Bennett)

The Vanishing Half 
Brit Bennett, 2020
Penguin Publishing
352 pp.

From the author of The Mothers, a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical.

But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it's not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it's everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities.

Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape.

The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters' storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing.

Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1989-90
Raised—Oceanside, California, USA
Education—B.A., Stanford University; M.F.A., University of Michigan
Currently—lives in Encino, California

Brit Bennett is an American author whose debut novel, The Mothers, was published in 2016. The novel is a coming-of-age story surrounding a trio of black teens growing up in southern California.

Bennett grew up in Oceanside in southern California. She is the youngest of three sisters. Their father was Oceanside's first black city attorney, and their mother a finger-print analyst for the country sheriff's department.

Bennett recalls herself as a serious, driven child, who started writing when she was 7 or 8. Her efforts resulted in a play about a coyote and short story about a Native American boy whose home is destroyed.

While she was only 17, she began writing The Mothers—she was the same age as the book's protagonist, Nadia Turner. Like Nadia, Bennett was smart and ambitious and eager to get out of the city where she grew up.

My mom grew up sharecropping in Louisiana, and my dad grew up in South Central L.A., and both of them were able to scratch and claw and go to college, so what’s my excuse?

Bennett did leave town. She attended Stanford University, where she received her B.A. in English. Later, she earned an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. Bennett says she felt out of place in Michigan—she was a southern California girl suffering through Midwestern winters and wrestling with the culture shock of being in a mostly white environment.

At the time that Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, were killed at the hands of the police, Bennett was completing a writing fellowship at Michigan. Not long after the court cases absolved the policemen involved in the killings, Bennett wrote an essay for the webwite Jezebel, entitled "I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People."

The essay was viewed more than 1 million times in 3 days and drew the attention of a literary agent who emailed her wanting to know if Bennett wanted to write a book. The rest is history. (Adapted from a New York Times article.)

Book Reviews
Bennett is a remarkably assured writer who mostly sidesteps the potential for melodrama inherent in a form built upon secrecy and revelation. The past laps at the present in short flashbacks, never weighing down the quick current of a story that covers almost 20 years….  [T]he pages fairly turn themselves… in a book about suppressed lineages…. As old as the story of passing may be, so too is the effort… to capture its complicated desire.
Parul Sehgal-New York Times

I don't think I've read a book that covers passing in the way that this one does… epic.
Oprah Magazine

Not to be missed.
Harper’s Bazaar

Here, in her sensitive, elegant prose, [Bennett] evokes both the strife of racism, and what it does to a person even if they can evade some of its elements.

This is sure to be one of 2020’s best and boldest…. A tale of family, identity, race, history, and perception, Bennett’s next masterpiece is a triumph of character-driven narrative.

Worth an early pre-order. It's a curvy, looping story… a fitting complement to her debut book, 2017's The Mothers. I gobbled this up.

(Starred review) Impressive…. Bennett renders her characters and their struggles with great compassion, and explores the complicated state of mind that Stella finds herself in while passing as white. This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut.
Publishers Weekly

Bennett here features identical twin sisters, who at age 16 run away from their small, black, 1950s Southern town and take different paths, one passing for white. What's key is the relationship between their daughters
Library Journal

(Starred review) Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress. Kin find "each other’s lives inscrutable" in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
 1. Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up identical and, as children, inseparable. Later, they are not only separated, but lost to each other, completely out of contact. What series of events and experiences leads to this division and why? Was it inevitable, after their growing up so indistinct from each other?

2. When did you notice cracks between the twins begin to form? Do you understand why Stella made the choice she did? What did Stella have to give up, in order to live a different kind of life? Was it necessary to leave Desiree behind? Do you think Stella ultimately regrets her choices? What about Desiree?

3. Consider the various forces that shape the twins into the people they become, and the forces that later shape their respective daughters. In the creation of an individual identity or sense of self, how much influence do you think comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, education? Which of these are mutable and why? Have you ever taken on or discarded aspects of your own identity?

4. Kennedy is born with everything handed to her, Jude with comparatively little. What impact do their relative privileges have on the people they become? How does it affect their relationships with their mothers and their understanding of home? How does it influence the dynamic between them?

5. The town of Mallard is small in size but looms large in the personal histories of its residents. How does the history of this town and its values affect the twins and their parents; how does it affect “outsiders” like Early and later Jude? Do you understand why Desiree decides to return there as an adult? What does the depiction of Mallard say about who belongs to what communities, and how those communities are formed and enforced?

6. Many of the characters are engaged in a kind of performance at some point in the story. Kennedy makes a profession of acting, and ultimately her fans blur the line between performance and reality when they confuse her with her soap opera character. Barry performs on stage in theatrical costumes that he then removes for his daytime life. Reese takes on a new wardrobe and role, but it isn’t a costume. One could say that Stella’s whole marriage and neighborhood life is a kind of performance. What is the author saying about the roles we perform in the world? Do you ever feel you are performing a role rather than being yourself? How does that compare to what some of these characters are doing? Consider the distinction between performance, reinvention, and transformation in respect to the different characters in the book.

7. Desiree’s job as a fingerprint analyst in Washington DC is to use scientific methods to identify people through physical, genetic details. Why do you think the author chose this as a profession for her character? Where else do you see this theme of identity and identification in the book?

8. Compare and contrast the love relationships in the novel –Desiree and Early, Stella and Blake, and Reese and Jude. What are their separate relationships with the truth? How much does telling the truth or obscuring it play a part in the functionality of a relationship? How much does the past matter in each case?

9. What does Stella feel she has to lose in California, if she reveals her true identity to her family and her community? When Loretta, a black woman, moves in across the street, what does she represent for Stella? What do Stella’s interactions with Loretta tell us about Stella’s commitment to her new identity?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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