I read a couple of books that are making some of the Best of 2020 lists. What a precarious honor, to be on any list associated with 2020. But both books are worth praise.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, is about a couple of twin girls, Desiree and Stella, African Americans born in the deep segregated South in the late 1940s. When the girls’ mother makes them quit school at 16 to work alongside her as domestic help, the bright young girls who dreamt of going to college someday, see a future life of serving and cleaning they do not want to accept. So, one morning while their mother is asleep, they hightail it out of town before the break of day.
They run away to New Orleans. Before long, Stella gets a job in an all-white office as a receptionist. She doesn’t plan on “passing”, but she and Des need the money, and, although she knows it could be dangerous, she also thinks it’s not her fault if no one can tell she’s Black. She has to hide a lot of herself to keep her secret from co-workers and her boss. She learns to do this well. Eventually she leaves. She leaves New Orleans, Des, the South, and her race. She vanishes.
Desiree searched, but with no trace of her sister, and no means of traveling to find her, in due course, she accepts her sister is gone. She moves to Washington DC, gets a job, marries a lawyer (a dark-skinned African American) and has a daughter, Jude, who looks just like her father. The marriage doesn’t last, and Desiree returns to her small-town home 10 years after she left, with Jude in tow. The story begins here and follows Stella’s and Desiree’s separate and intertwining lives.
Stella now married to her former boss, has a daughter and lives in the exclusive LA neighborhood of Brentwood. She never revealed her secret to her husband or daughter. She lives constantly on the edge, torn between sympathy and disdain for the Black and Brown servants she employs and envy and fear of people of color that succeed and live happily as themselves.
Back in their southern hometown, Desiree gets a job at the local café and raises her daughter in the same house she grew up in.
As the story unfolds, Desiree’s daughter, Jude, heads to California for college, meets her partner Reese (formerly Theresa), and collides with her aunt and her cousin.
The literal Vanishing Half of the story’s title is Stella’s separation from her twin, Desiree. However, the story is about the attributes of each character (attributes both innate and those chosen) that make up the whole. They reveal some parts of themselves to others, some they do not.
I also read Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I love Lily King’s writing. I gushed about her novel Euphoria in these pages a few years ago. Her writing is clever—at times subtle, and at others it’s laugh out loud funny. Writers and Loversis about a young writer, Casey, who’s in massive debt, grieving the death of her mother, and suffering a recent break-up. In short, Casey is struggling to keep her shit together, as life keeps piling more of it on her. Throughout the book are many literary references to writers, their themes, their works and poems. So, it’s not only light and funny, it’s bookish, intelligent, and satisfying. Therefore, it’s a good book for your brain. I recommend it.
So there you go 2020, you’re not all bad.