TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Brit Bennett's debut novel, "The Mothers," was a bestseller in 2016. It's been optioned by Kerry Washington to be adapted into a movie. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Bennett's just-published second novel, "The Vanishing Half," is also one of those sweeping, theatrical stories that's tailor-made for the movies. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One of the characters who comes to the fore in the second half of Brit Bennett's new novel, "The Vanishing Half," is a young actress named Kennedy Sanders. She's an attractive blonde pushing 30, who, after years of trying to make it in the serious theater, lands a role on a soap opera. Bennett writes that when Kennedy calls her parents to tell them about her big break, she assures them that there was nothing wrong with melodrama. In fact, some of the greatest classic actresses - Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo - trafficked in it from time to time. That relatively small moment in this novel caught my attention.
It felt to me that Bennett here was also talking in defense of her own fiction and its heavy trafficking in coincidences and other over-the-top plot contrivances. I liked her debut novel, "The Mothers" - about the long consequences of an unplanned teenage pregnancy. But I'd also faulted it for being melodramatic. Now, I'm recognizing that's how Bennett rolls as a novelist, embracing melodrama as a beguiling way to delve into difficult topics.
In "The Vanishing Half," Bennett takes up a subject perfectly suited to her signature melodramatic style. I'm talking about racial passing, which has inspired mostly tragic novels, like Nella Larsen's "Passing," as well as Douglas Sirk's grand, cinematic tear-jerker, "Imitation Of Life." "The Vanishing Half" tells the multi-generational story of the Vignes sisters, Desiree and Stella, two very pretty identical twins who grow up in the small town of Mallard, La. It's a town where all the residents are light-skinned African Americans.
In 1952, when the sisters are 16, they decide to run away to New Orleans to see what the wider world has to offer. Mostly, it has to offer menial jobs. Intrigued by an ad for secretarial work, the quieter sister, Stella, decides to try to pass as white. She's so successful that she vanishes completely into whiteness, abruptly cutting off all ties for decades with both her broken-hearted sister and her mother back in Mallard.
Bennett's omniscient narrator roams around here, checking in on multiple characters and jumping backwards and forwards in time. The novel actually opens at a much later point in the story, when Desiree, the once wilder sister, is trudging on the road back to her mother's house in Mallard. She's seeking refuge from an abusive husband and is tugging her little daughter, Jude, by the hand. But unlike Desiree, whose skin is described as the color of sand barely wet, little Jude is blue-black. Her father, we're told, was the darkest man Desiree could find. What awaits Jude as she grows up and attend school in color-struck Mallard are years of shunning by her light-skinned classmates who label her Tar Baby, Midnight, Darky and Mudpie.
Meanwhile, across the country, in LA, Stella, to outward appearances, has hit the passing jackpot. She married her wealthy white boss, who has no clue she's black, and is now the mother of a snow angel of a little girl, a girl who'll grow up to be that blond actress named Kennedy I mentioned earlier. Like the Titanic and the iceberg, first cousins Jude and Kennedy are fated to be on a collision course that will, in time, upend their sense of family and racial identity.
Bennett is especially artful in delving into Stella's situation, which at first seems so cushy but turns out to be fraught with the daily terror of being found out. In a section of the novel set in 1968, Stella's exclusively white Brentwood neighborhood is up in arms because a black family has moved in. In a vexed, hesitant way, Stella finds herself befriending Loretta, the wife of the black couple.
Daydreaming, Stella imagines the relief of confessing her secret to Loretta. I'm not one of them, Stella would say. I'm like you. You're colored, Loretta would say. Stella would tell her because she knew that, if it came down to her word versus Loretta's, she would always be believed. And knowing this, Stella felt for the first time truly white.
That's a pretty devastating truth contained in Stella's momentary fantasy. Again and again, throughout this entertaining and brazenly improbable novel, Bennett stops readers - or at least stopped this white reader - in their tracks with such pointed observations about privilege and racism. As another melodramatic novelist, Charles Dickens, recognized, if you tell people a wild and compelling enough story, they may just listen to things they'd rather not hear.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett. After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review three shows, including one from the new streaming service HBO Max. This is FRESH AIR.
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