Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

The Hate U Give (and red velvet cheesecake brownies that are somehow related to the book)

The book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Earlier this month, I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a 16-year old girl who is trying to fit into two separate worlds – one, the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and the other the rich white prep school she attends – when she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend by a white police officer. As the story gains media attention, Starr copes with the trauma of losing her best friend, while also figuring out how much she – as the only witness – should publicly say about the shooting.

I loved The Hate U Give – it was one of those intensely engaging novels that I immediately loved and never wanted to put down. One reason why the book is so engaging is because the main character, Starr, is instantly relatable and likable: she is shy and feels awkward and unsure of her place in the world, but she is also sincere and thinks for herself. Another thing that makes The Hate U Give engaging is the plot. The initial shooting happens early on in the novel, and from there on the book is filled with page-turning events including heated family discussions, protests against police violence, and even high school dances.

While some people might feel desensitized to issues of police violence and racism in America, Angie Thomas does an amazing and responsible job of taking on these issues. By writing the novel from the perspective of a young girl who has lost friends (plural!) to police violence, Thomas allows the reader to understand Starr’s heartbreak and trauma. And since Starr is such a likable character, it is especially easy to empathize with her.

Despite tackling hard-hitting issues, The Hate U Give never feels excessively preachy. The book is full of “teachable moments,” but they are not forced or corny – they feel genuine. Examples of this include Starr’s dad explaining to her how racism is a systemic problem, and Starr explaining to her classmate Hailey how well-intentioned people can still say racist things. I liked these moments not only for the moral lessons they teach, but also because they demonstrated that it IS perfectly reasonable to have genuine and meaningful conversations about racism as part of everyday conversation.

Something that surprised me about The Hate U Give was that it was hilarious at times! The way Starr and her siblings – Sekani and Seven – tease each other is so funny; anybody who grew up with siblings will probably laugh out loud reading these passages. I also found a lot of humor in some of Starr’s painfully relatable teenage behaviors, such as praying that her mom will allow her to miss a day of school.

All in all, I absolutely loved The Hate U Give. It takes the subjects of racism and police violence in America, and makes them so much more real to an audience who might otherwise only see these topics as abstract. The book is also full of sincere teachable moments that are insightful and helpful, but never forced. I can’t recommend this book enough!

The bake: red velvet cheesecake brownies.

I didn’t immediately want to bake after reading the The Hate U Give, because it was a pretty heavy book. But a couple of weeks have passed since I finished the book, and I’m ready to celebrate this amazing novel with a bake! The Hate U Give references Mrs. Rooks’ red velvet cake a couple times (it is Starr’s uncle’s absolute favorite dessert) – so I decided to also make a red velvet based dessert.

Instead of a cake, though, I made red velvet cheesecake brownies following this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. I followed the recipe almost exactly, with the only difference being that I used pink gel food coloring instead of red (my local grocery store didn’t have red!), which resulted in the brownies having a milder color. Also, I didn’t use any type of mixer for the brownies – I just waited for the cream cheese to reach room temperature and was able to mix it by hand.

These brownies were so good! Red velvet and cream cheese are a classic flavor combination for good reason: the tanginess of the cream cheese mixture perfectly complements the sweetness of chocolatey red velvet. And putting that flavor combination into fudgey, moist brownies: such a good idea! Although these brownies probably couldn’t rival Mrs. Rooks’ (fictional) red velvet cake, they are still incredibly satisfying – a definite close second.

An American Marriage (plus, the blackberry jam cake from Celestial and Roy’s rehearsal dinner)

The book: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Last week, I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a newlywed couple whose marriage is put to the test when Roy is sentenced to thirteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel shows the effects of Roy’s incarceration on the relationship from the perspective of three characters: Roy, Celestial, and Celestial’s childhood friend Andre.

The chapters of An American Marriage are alternatingly told from the perspectives of each of the three main characters. This technique only works when characters are well-developed, and in An American Marriage they absolutely were. The different perspectives allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of situations and relationships, and (usually) to empathize better with each character. I say that the differing perspectives usually elicited empathy, because there were some passages written from Roy’s perspective that made my blood boil. Celestial and Andre often omit or sugarcoat Roy’s undesirable characteristics (egotism and entitlement, to name a couple), so reading chapters from his perspective made me like him much less than I would have if his perspective hadn’t been written at all. But this makes the story more complete, more realistic.

An American Marriage illustrates many contemporary societal issues, and is probably meant to encourage discussion of those issues. With the plot revolving around the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent black man, racism of course plays a major role in the novel. Maybe even more prominent than racism in America, however, is the issue of toxic masculinity. Many of my frustrations with Roy are the result of his outdated ideas about gender roles in relationships. Roy is not solely to blame for his sexist views, however, because these ideas are clearly pervasive in the community where he grew up.

In addition to addressing pertinent social issues, An American Marriage also brings up philosophical questions about relationships and marriage. This novel left me broadly considering the institution of marriage, and what it means to commit to another person forever in a rapidly changing world. I have also been questioning whether Celestial and Roy’s relationship was destroyed by Roy’s imprisonment, or if it was simply a bad relationship that would have failed regardless.

Overall, An American Marriage was an incredible read and I highly recommend it. Parts of the plot might make your blood boil, but that speaks to the book’s ability to pull you in!

The bake: blackberry jam cake.

All my previous bakes have been loosely inspired by books, but this bake comes pretty directly from An American Marriage. At Celestial’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner, her mother Gloria makes a blackberry jam cake with “the aroma of rum, cloves, and cinnamon.” This blackberry jam cake is so special that not only did Celestial’s husband Roy request it as his groom’s cake, but it also played a role in Gloria’s courtship of Celestial’s father!

I followed this recipe for blackberry jam cake (omitting the golden raisins), and frosted it using this white chocolate frosting. Something to note about the cake recipe is that the bake time is pretty long, which may be the result of the jam in the batter. Also, because of the various textures in this cake (i.e. the chopped walnut chunks), it is a bit tricky to get a smooth frosting coat over it. Other than that, it is a straightforward cake.

I had been thinking about decorating the cake with walnuts and blackberries, as I recently adopted the philosophy that cake decorations should be reflective of what’s inside the cake. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy fresh blackberries this weekend, so I ended up decorating the cake only with walnuts.

This cake is very good: the jam keeps it moist, the spices give it a complex flavor, and the walnuts add more texture. I had a hard time picking up the blackberry flavor – the cake tasted like a sweet spice cake to me – but I still like it. In all of its complexity, this is the perfect cake to represent An American Marriage.