juan gris bullfighter

Magpie Book Club: Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

*Above image is The Bullfighter, by Juan Gris, but I saw some visual resonance with the book that I found compelling.

There has been serious buzz around Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which has been likened to Toni Morrison’s first novel (!). The book follows the stories of twin sisters born in a Southern Black community. One of them runs away and secretly passes as white. The other escapes an abusive relationship and brings her daughter — who is much darker than her mother, and for whom passing would never be an option — back to the town she once tried to escape.

The novel is a rich and deftly textured pastiche of doubles, mistaken and forged identities, echoes, and othernesses. We explore multiple vignettes in which we see splits, halves, “others,” some of them inevitable and others shaped at the hands of willful characters. For example, we have sisters born as twins and the inherited racial characteristics (i.e., color of skin) of the characters in this novel — that is, facts of biology that cannot be tampered with. And then we have the decision of Stella to pass as white, Reese’s gender reassignment, and Kennedy’s acting career, in which she is often publicly confused with the character she portrays in a popular soap opera. There are so many doubles and identity changes that the novel feels nearly Shakespearean. (Doubles of all kinds abound in Shakespeare — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a play in a play and full of mistaken/swapped identities in particular — and there is an entire body of critical literature on the functional practice of “doubling” in Shakespearean theatre, by which actors played multiple roles, a strategic move that often enabled the audience to glean thematic connections between separate plot-lines.) But we have the sense in Bennett’s book that these doubles are not strategem but substance, so intense is her focus on the logistics of “splitting.” We look closely at the complications of passing as someone else (even the offhanded slips in tongue where Stella’s past life is unwittingly revealed), the pain of undergoing gender reassignment (from the risk and cost of testosterone-riddled concoctions purchased by Reese in back alleys to the recovery from surgery and, of course, the emotional toll all has taken), the agony of erasing a past in pursuit of a new identity. The focus on these logistics of transition are further signaled by the title: the vanishing half, not the vanished half. We are drawn to the messy metamorphosis itself, not the befores and afters. The title further calls into question the permanence of these evolutions: are the characters ever able to fully escape their first identities? Are they always in a state of vanishing but never fully vanished? This is perhaps a matter of perspective: many characters meet Reese and never know that he was once a woman, just as many never know that Stella is passing as white. But many of the characters closest in, the ones who knew the “befores,” appear perpetually engaged in the act of hunting, tracing, tracking, unearthing the “former” version of their loved ones.

If it’s not yet clear, I was flat out astounded by Bennett’s dexterity in constructing a text that felt as though it rippled with doubles and echoes. The narrative was tautly-written in that sense, though the prose at times belied that complexity in its accessibility and seeming straight-forwardness, itself a feat. It was an easy read, the story moving quickly and compellingly in approachable prose–but the meat will stick with me for some time.

What did you think?

Post Scripts.

+What I’m reading this fall.

+Audibooks I’ve particularly enjoyed recently: Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums and Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. I love listening to memoirs narrated by the authors themselves — their voices, intonations, expressions give so much away! It took me a minute to warm up to Reichl, but my God is her food-writing transcendent. I could listen to her talk about French food forever. It’s absolutely sensational, in every sense of the word–you see and taste the food with her artful language, which is both (paradoxically!) precise and imaginative. Unbelievable. I learned a lot, technique-wise, listening to her talk about food. Kalb’s book is basically a love story between herself and her deceased grandmother, and it is heartbreaking and tender and has a message that bears repeating in 2020: “If the earth is cracking behind you, you put one foot in front of the other.

+These woven accent tables would be such a chic and inexpensive way to outfit a guest bedroom with two bedside tables — see how they’ve done that in the second picture? When Mr. Magpie and I were outfitting our home in Chicago, we de-prioritized the guest room, investing in high-traffic, heavy-use areas like our living spaces and mini’s nursery. This would be such an affordable way to “finish” a guest bedroom and make visitors comfortable.

+I’m bowled over by some of the new designs at CB2 — this lacquered linen console table and this pedestal table (daydreaming of this in a formal entryway — wow wow wow) belong in the pages of Architectural Digest! Wow!

+Small things, like lucite napkin holders to contain my cocktail napkins (always obsessed with Caspari brand), bring me joy.

+I can’t stop daydreaming about this cardigan. Like, who even would I be wearing it? Same goes for this very-not-my-style shacket from IRO (look for less with this) — but could I make it mine, pairing with my Alexandre Birman kitten heel booties and skinny dark jeans?! OOO.

+This shawl collar pullover for a little boy is so good.

+OK, I am officially dead over these feather trees. Going to add to the winter wonderland I’m setting up on my sideboard in my dining room.

+This knit vest totally caught me off guard: it’s again not even my style, really, but I gravitated towards the coffee brown immediately, imagining myself pairing it with a crisp white shirt or layering over another knit.

+A spectacular fall dress, and a chic suggestion for Thanksgiving.

+Can you even deal with this bunny puffer snowsuit for babies?! Oh my goodness.

+Amazing, sophisticated topcoat for under $100. Love the shape. Would look nuts with a tall boot. (Some of my favorite boot finds for fall here.)

+Crushing on ribbed knits at the moment, and this dress looks like heaven for a weekend spent at home.

+Musings on running.

14 Comments

  1. I had to skip over the part about The Vanishing Half as it’s still on my queue of books to read, but re: Ruth Reichl’s Save Me The Plums — yes! I read it, but that is such a great idea to listen to the audio version narrated by the author herself — sounds like a lovely experience! I have thoroughly enjoyed the food memoir genre (in particular Amanda Hesser, Marcus Samuelsson) and the next one I want to read is Lisa Donovan’s Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, as I had recently listened to an interview of hers with Francis Lam at The Splendid Table. I’ll have to check if it comes in audio format and if she’s the narrator. Her voice has such a soothing quality to it, while also communicating her wit and knowledge.

    Also adding Kalb’s book to my list! That quote about the earth cracking and putting one foot in front of the other — wow. I have goosebumps now as I write this.

    1. Circle back with thoughts on Vanishing Half! The more I have sat with it, the more I have appreciated it (and I was so impressed upon first read, too). Love these food memoir suggestions, too! There is something about food and writing that go hand in hand with one another. They’re just natural companions.

      xx

  2. Thank you for your review! I started “Vanishing Half” a few weeks ago and put it down because I wasn’t getting into it quickly. I have so many books to read and a rather aggressive 2020 goal for reading, so if I’m not cruising from the get-go, it’s a red flag. I do want to pick it back up at some point, especially after reading your thoughts about doubling and the effect of the title, but Claire’s comment about the packed plot has me waffling: I know myself as a reader, and I prefer characterization to plot. I don’t need to like a character necessarily, but I’m perfectly happy reading a book where nothing happens. How people deal with quotidian mundanity interests me more than big events and conflicts.

    I flew through “Save Me The Plums” – I generally adore food/chef memoirs. The love that chefs or food writers have for food and its culture fascinates me – it seems like a special class of people. I love people who are unequivocal about their passion.

    As far as audiobooks: I’m generally a nonfiction listener; I can’t focus enough for fiction unless it’s someone like Stephen King. I just finished listening to “Blood in the Water,” which is about the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in upstate New York, so I need something “lighter” – it was a tough, tough read. I am intrigued by “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.” I had a special relationship with my paternal grandmother, who died a couple of years ago, and I think this would be cathartic. Going to download it on libro.fm!

    1. I think you’ll love the Kalb memoir though it will tug at the heart strings (there were tears involved for me) — just a heads up in case you want something even lighter!

      “Save Me the Plums” was so gorgeously written. I am still lingering over the food writing. Wow.

      And I totally agree with your strategy about dropping books that don’t catch your interest! Life is far too short!

      xx

  3. I really enjoyed The Vanishing Half, and I agree with your assessment here. I, too, was blown away by Bennett’s skillfully crafted world of doubles/mirrors/echoes. I bought a copy for my mother as part of her birthday gift, and she, too, loved it! I think it has the ability to reach a wider audience, maybe, given its sometimes deceptively simple prose. I also know that I liked it a lot more than The Mothers, which I found only middling when I read it in spring 2017! I find Brit Bennett so charming in interviews, so I was thrilled to see that The Vanishing Half has had such a positive reception, especially being published in the middle of a pandemic. Will be closely watching the National Book Awards news!

    Currently I’m reading Tuesday Nights in 1980, a send-up of the New York art world in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s really enjoyable and well-written! Otherwise, I’m excited to read Eat a Peach (which I feel like I’ve mentioned 100 times in your blog comments! Ha!) and Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even, about burnout as the default millennial condition. Should be super thought-provoking, and I love her style of incisive cultural analysis!

    xx

    1. Great reading list! I’m a little way into the Chang memoir and it is radically honest in a refreshing and compelling way. xx

    2. Oooh — YES! Thanks for the sneak peek of Eat a Peach! I can’t wait to dive in! Might have to start before I finish my current book 🙂

      xx

    3. Yes! Super interesting. He has a really interesting tone in the book — he goes from being self-effacing to self-congratulating within the span of a sentence. Hard to pin down his personality!

      xx

  4. Your review has me reconsidering my own, less generous one — I felt there was so much plot packed into relatively few pages that there wasn’t enough room for me to really get in the weeds with any of the characters. (I felt the same way about Commonwealth — I could have done with 200 more pages!) But maybe the point is that you can’t get into the weeds with someone who is vanishing (now half-singing “how do you pin a wave upon the sand” to myself). And gosh — Reese’s storyline had felt like a distraction to me, but of course it’s an inversion of Stella’s, a becoming rather than a masking. Lots to mull over; thank you!

    1. Hi Claire – I totally understand what you mean; I had a difficult time emotionally connecting with the characters, too. I talked about this at some length with my sister, who also read the book, and it led us to ask: “But do we always need to emotionally connect with the characters for a book to be good?” (For the record, my sister said she did feel a connection with Desiree and Early, but she found Reese nearly crudely drawn, like a stick figure next to illustrations.) At any rate, this book felt like the inverse of Patchett’s “The Dutch House,” whose characters were so round as to be nearly real (I still hold such intense affection for the characters and replay nearly visceral memories of some of the moments in that book, as if they are my own…!) Meanwhile, Bennett seems more focused (?) on the conceptual and thematic, on chasing out and playing with the many “splits” and “doubles” and “halves” in the book versus deep character study. Still, I found these two books of equal craftsmanship, just different in emphasis.

      A lot to think about for sure. I’m still finding new tunnels of thought myself. Last night, my sister brought up the point that Adele loses her memory in the end — yet another play with lost identity, another instance in which mind/memory transform and there is a before and after.

      xx

  5. I was a bit worried The Vanishing Half wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was part of me that wished for a “cleaner” ending, but alas, much like life itself, no such luck. I think because the “real” world is so stressful these days (covid, four kids, pending holiday stress, school, etc.) I’ve hit a wall on reading anything that requires a lot of thought or unpacking later. I don’t have the emotional capacity for it. Trying to find some lighter reads (along the lines of Save Me The Plums, which I enjoyed). I just started The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living and hoping it’s that cozy, feel-good story I need right now.

    1. Hi Amy – There were definitely moments of irresolution in The Vanishing Half that left me unsatisfied, but I think this, too, contributed to the sense of things “in transition,” with very little settled or tidy. And, I totally empathize with your reaching for palate cleansers / lighter fare right now. I am enjoying thrillers and fluff in between the heavier undertakings, too.

      xx

  6. I agree with your comments on Save Me the Plums, the author writes so lovingly about food, and the publishing business. It really made me nostalgic for my Gourmet subscription. I actually still have the magazines I’ve collected stored in my basement, even though you can find the recipes on-line!

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