The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
2. Is Mallard a real town? (Founder Alphonse Decuir, 1848) Were there other towns populated by light-skinned blacks that weren't recognized by the state? "She rode a Greyhound all the way from a town that existed on no maps." (81) (Mallard wasn't a real town, but according to this article: "In this powerful, storied examination of the complexities of racial identity in the US, Bennett reaches back to literary ancestors who could never have dreamed of such mainstream success. It develops, elaborates and updates a theme explored by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen in her 1929 novel Passing about a light-skinned coloured woman, a "tragic mulatto" who marries a white man and passes for white in a segregated America.") I did find this other article about a real town called East Jackson, Ohio, where many white-appearing residents identify as black.
3. What do you make of this: "Negroes always love our hometowns," [Sam] said. "Even though we're always from the worst places. Only white folks get the freedom to hate home." (21)
4. What did you appreciate about the storytelling? the braiding? the building on scenes? i.e. p.21-22: Desiree looking back many years later: "During training, she'd practiced reading her own fingerprints, those intricate designs that marked her as unique. Stella had a scar on her left index finger from when she'd cut herself with a knife, one of many ways that their fingerprints were different. / Sometimes who you were came down to the small things." (Did you think that scar was going to be important later, like I did? Like they might switch places or that Desiree might impersonate Stella at some point??)
5. What do you make of the barber's reflection (presumably as a representative opinion of the town)? "As far as he was concerned, both [girls] were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blue black child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave." (59) What do you make of this type of racism? What do you make of the stylistic choice and placement of these foreboding phrases?
6. Did the format (five parts, moving around in time) work for you? (1968, 1978, 1968, 1982, 1985/6)
7. What role do secrets and detectives and mystery play in the book? (Stella's secrets, Early's huntin', Jude's detective mysteries...)
8. Early remembers getting smacked at church for putting his finger in the holy water ahead of a man's wife. "Like I ruined it somehow. I thought my uncle was gonna stick up for me. I don't know why, I just thought. But he told the man sorry like I done somethin wrong." (71) In what ways do social norms help or harm us from teaching our kids about their own dignity?
9. According to Jude, "Gratitude only emphasized the depth of your lack, so she tried to hide it." (99) Do you agree? Isn't this the opposite of what we think gratitude does for us?
10. What were you feeling and thinking when you found out Reese was Therese just one page after "his hand cupped the back of [Jude's] knee"? (100) Was that deception? Or was Jude supposed to embrace someone regardless of physical features? Did it feel to anyone else like that tone of the book changed or that the story took a left-hand turn?
11. "Finally," she [Maman] said. "One good picture of you." / In all her school pictures she'd either looked too black or over-exposed, invisible except for the whites of her eyes and teeth. The camera, Reese told her once, worked like the human eye. Meaning, it was not created to notice her." (108) Anyone else read about how Kodak film was oriented toward white skin when it was first invented?
12. Here Jude reflects on a party she helped cater: "She couldn't imagine living like this -- hanging on a cliff, exposed by glass. But maybe the rich didn't feel a need to hide. Maybe wealth was the freedom to reveal yourself." (129) Is that true -- to reveal yourself -- or to show off?
13. How did the perspective shifts work? Was there someone you wanted to hear (more) from?
14. How did you react when Stella walked back into the story? "Fun's over," she said, and drained her martini in a gulp. / Then she set her empty glass on the bar and started toward the entrance, where a woman had just walked in. Mr. Hardison was helping her out of her fur coat, and when she turned, passing a hand through her dark hair, the bottle of wine shattered on the floor." (141)
15. Regarding how Stella thought Blake viewed her when she lied about her family who was long gone: "If he pitied her, he wouldn't be able to see her clearly. He would refract all of her lies through her mourning, mistake her reticence about her past for grief." (152) Could Stella have really thought this out so well, to consider the role of pity in shaping how Blake and the world viewed her? Is this believable?
16. How's that for a white fragility moment when Loretta says to Stella: "You think I want your guilt?" she said. "Your guilt can't do nothin for me, honey. You want to go feel good about feeling bad, you can go on and do it right across the street." (178)
17. What does this book have to say about feminism?
18. "But sometimes lying was an act of love. Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now, or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal. Maybe this was who she had become." (259) This reminds me of Alix in Such A Fun Age, clinging to her own truth. And yet, is that true? Is it ultimately okay to ignore the absolute truth? At this point in the book, how many of you were hoping for Stella to come clean?
19. How do these lines get down to the crux of what this book is about? "Would you still love me," [Kennedy] said, "if I weren't white?" / "No," [Frantz] said, tugging her closer. "Because then you wouldn't be you." (297)
20. At the end, after the funeral, what do Jude and Reese want to forget? "...they waded into the cold water, squealing, water inching up their thighs. This river, like all rivers, remembered its course. They floated under the leafy canopy of trees, begging to forget." (343)
So nice to see you last week. Thank you again to Abby for the fairy world setting, delicious treats, and warm hospitality.
We all found The Vanishing Half incredibly engrossing. I noted how I was sucked into the story on page one and kept reading as if mesmerized...until I reached part two and felt like the book took a left turn. I wanted to read about Desiree for about 200 more pages. Still, the rest of you said, hands down, that your favorite character was her daughter Jude, whom we admired for her steadfast acceptance of who she was in the midst of great antagonism and racism. A fascinating inquiry on what it means to be successful and how certain characters are able or unable to separate that from attaining whiteness, this book is definitely one to try if you haven't.
Still, once I confessed that I prefer books that focus on one character or one relationship and go deep into that, Abby had the perfect suggestion for me...which means all of you must read it too...and convene to discuss The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab later this summer.
But first -- a party, to toast being vaccinated, to toast the END of the most difficult and ridiculous school year ever, and to toast friendships that kept us going through it all.
Hope to see you there!
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The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.