I picked up The Mothers about a year and a half ago, but never ended up reading it. Then I chose The Vanishing Half as my book of the Month pick in July. The time just never felt right. After The Vanishing Half was named the Book of the Year, I decided that I needed to get it together and finally read these novels! So I did it back-to-back to get the interrupted Brit Bennett experience. It didn’t disappoint. Not even a little. Here are my thoughts on each of the novels:
This is an incredible debut. Bennett’s characters are so alive and fully formed and distinct from one another. They’re all flawed and broken and deserving of true, unconditional love. Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke demonstrate what it means to grow up too soon, to react to grief without dealing with it, to bury their pain under secrets, and to be consumed by their insecurities of what others may think of them. Nadia’s constant search for her mother, Luke’s desire to find his path after injury, and Aubrey’s need to move past her childhood abuse are the central struggles that have these characters pulling towards each other and intertwining their lives in heartbreaking ways.
Her prose shows an undeniable power to create so much meaning. Just the difference between “Daddy” and “Dad” (as outlined below) carves a powerful understanding of the gulf between them and her desire to cross it, and maybe even close it, if that’s possible.
“She hadn’t called him Daddy in years. She’d tried it out when he first came home from overseas, rolling the word around in her mouth, wondering how he might react to it. She’d been so desperate for him then, following him around the kitchen, climbing on his lap while he watched television, patting his face as soon as he’d shaved to feel his smooth cheeks. But then he’d settled back home and she’d grown up and found Dad fit him better- a curt word, a little removed.”
Bennett has a way of intertwining everyone’s story, including the Mothers. As the reader, you get to experience this story through all of them all at once, not one at a time. It’s not so much a shifting perspective as it is a fluid, communal perspective. But beyond that, it’s a commentary on humanity and the Black experience and religious expectations, especially in a small town.
“We tried to love the world. We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches, cared for its sick and nursed its babies. But the world didn’t want us, so we left and gave our love to Upper Room. Now we’re afraid of this world. A boy snatched Hattie’s purse one night and now none of us go out after dark. We hardly go anywhere at all, besides Upper Room. We’ve seen what this world has to offer. We scared of what it wants.”
The consequences of one’s actions and the what if’s in this novel demonstrate the effects of decisions that extend far beyond one person. One person affects another, then another, and then an entire town and community are struggling in the grip of such a secret born of obstacles that had no clear path or right decision to be made, yet still held the weight of a lifetime of uncertainty.
The Vanishing Half
I really loved the many perspectives that this book was told from. Bennett tells the story of four who are defined by their race and how it affects every decision they make. I was a little disappointed with the ending because I felt like it didn’t really wrap Stellas story and almost contradicted itself at the end. But I loved that there were four distinct voices in the story despite all being related. I loved that each woman experienced race in a different way and that each of their stories were different.
He glanced at her, but she looked away, staring down at the photo paper as an abandoned building shimmered into view. She hated to be called beautiful. It was the type of thing people only said because they felt they ought to. She thought about Lonnie Goudeau kissing her under the moss trees or inside the stables or behind the Delafosse barn at night. In the dark, you could never be too black. In the dark, everyone was the same color.
Bennett also describes the intricacies of family and how that interferes with being an individual. This is especially true for twins, and in particular these twins, who are tied to the history of the town they grew up in. In the end, either of them would do anything for the family they created, despite the one they may have come from.
Sometimes being a twin had felt like living with another version of yourself. That person existed for everyone, probably, an alternative self that lived only in the mind. But hers was real. Stella rolled over in bed each morning and looked into her eyes. Other times it felt like living with a foreigner. Why are you not more like me? she’d think, glancing over at Desiree. How did I become me and you and become you? Maybe she was only quiet because Desiree was not. Maybe they’d spent their lives together modulating each other, making up for what the other lacked. Like how at their father’s funeral, Stella barely spoke, and when someone asked her a question, Desiree answered instead. At first it unnerved Stella, a person speaking to her and Desiree responding. Like throwing her own voice. But soon she felt comfortable disappearing. You could say nothing and, in your nothingness, feel free.
Bennett just really has this amazing style. She’s telling the story as it’s happening but also as it has already happened. She tells it from the perspective of the main character(s) individually but also as a collective town memory. And she captures the spirit of a small town so well! The way stories are passed down and changed and people are remembered and families stay and gossip gets around…it’s all captured without seeming cliche. Bennett is a unique voice with amazing stories to tell…and I can’t wait to read what’s next!