(Posted by Evan)
About the author: From britbennett.com,
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 awardee, and her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller. Her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes are raised in a rural town in Louisiana called Mallard, a town too small to appear on a map, about two hours’ drive from New Orleans. It’s a strange town. It’s founder was obsessed with creating a community of light-skinned blacks who would become ever increasingly lighter in complexion, to the point of “Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek” . The Vignes are a kind of aristocratic family of the town, being direct descendants of the town’s founder.
However, they are still black, certainly not white. This couldn’t be clearer than when the twins watch from a hiding place in a closet the lynching of their father at the hands of white men. Bennett seems to make a habit of exposing us to atrocities seemingly without warning, such as this sudden invoking of the lynching in the last sentence of the first paragraph of Chapter 2, the 33rd page of the book. The details of the horrific scenes of two violent attacks with the second finalizing their father’s murder are reported in little more than a paragraph that follows.
Bennett discusses the artistic merits of graphic descriptions in composing the slavery narrative, in this half essay half book review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, in which she contrasts that author's approach to 'ripping the veil' with Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
“Popular taste discouraged the writers from dwelling too long or too carefully on the more sordid details of their experience.” Instead, writers “pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as ‘But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.’” The job of the contemporary writer, Morrison argues, is to “rip that veil.” If slave narrators were forced to obscure moments of extreme violence to make their narratives more palatable to a white audience, then contemporary authors must force their own readers to look.
Bennett's own approach is moderately descriptive. The passages aren't hard to read in themselves, in my opinion, one must identify and empathize with the characters to experience these scenes. So her manner seems similar to the one she attributes to Whitehead.
A key event in the book occurs after the twins are taken out of school to work – they conspire to runaway to New Orleans together. After a short time there, Stella pretends to be white in order to get a better job, and eventually disappears, leaving Desiree behind and marrying a white man. Desiree also gets married, but to a very dark-skinned black man. They have a daughter together while living in DC, where Desiree works in fingerprint identification. This is apparently a reference to Bennett’s mother,. From this article in Vogue:
In 1968, the spring after she turned 20, my mother left Louisiana for a job working as a fingerprint examiner for the FBI in Washington, D.C.
One of the interesting elements of the novel is in speculation about Desiree and Stella’s different motives for leaving Mallard. Desiree is described as snobbish in childhood, always dreaming of Paris or Rome and never interested in life in Mallard, “trapped by its smallness.” Stella on the other hand enjoyed school and wanted to be a teacher in Mallard, seemingly comfortable with small town life. Yet in New Orleans it is Stella who remains adamant about staying there and who convinces Desiree that they shouldn’t go back when Desiree is homesick. It could be considered that Stella is the one with the plan, and so she actually sees her opportunity to realize it, whereas Desiree was just longing for escape but doesn’t really know what she wants to escape to. There is more to Stella’s motivation that turns up in Part III but I won’t spoil it for slackers who are not quite half-way through.
The book actually begins when Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude in order to escape her husband who was beating her. Jude has a rough time in Mallard because she is so dark-skinned ('blueblack') growing up in a town obsessed with skin-color. Many of the locals are outraged with Desiree for bringing such a dark-skinned person into the town at all. In school, she is called lots of racist slurs. A girl estranged from and longing for her father ends up telling her fellow students her mother is not her real mother just to get them to stop bugging her about it.
Part II of the book occurs ten years later, when Jude goes to UCLA on a track-scholarship. This part centers around a developing friendship then romance between her and a trans-sexual man named Reese who ran away from his family in El Dorado, Arkansas and seems to be trying to transition with self-mutilation and black-market steroid injections. He is in LA trying to save up for a real surgery (illegal at the time, 1978). Reese doesn't believe a town could not exist on a map so Jude proves it to him.
If a major theme of the novel is transitioning, then part of this requires a consideration of the relationship between identity and the past. Adele, Jude's grandmother, tries to lighten Jude's skin as a child by keeping her out of the sun and applying pastes to her skin (Ironically, the founder of Mallard's mother had tried to darken him by putting him out in the sun). In Part III, we will learn more about Stella's transition into 'whiteness', or "passing over". Stella disappears from her family, Desiree disappears from her husband, Reese leaves his family and home behind, and Jude as well, leaves Mallard for LA. But does leaving people and places behind, starting new lives in new towns and making new families allow someone to escape their past?
There are somethings about us that are beyond our control. After Jude and Reese finally hook-up, friend Barry knows immediately without her saying anything about it and her mother can hear the change in her through her voice over the phone. Jude is embarrassed by being so "transparent". An interesting choice of words. As Jude and Reese struggle to connect, they both express desire not to be seen. Jude doesn't believe the Reese actually finds her beautiful, and Reese does not want Jude to see him naked. Opening up and letting other people see who we are is maybe the hardest thing for people to do, I think because the way that other people see us seems more real to us than the way we see ourselves. I think sometimes it is... depends on how they see me.
To wrap up, so far so good on this book. The plot doesn't move much in the present tense of the book, but the story develops, mostly in the form of character's relationships, in both a forward and retrospective dimension. The twists come through revelations about a character's past as we watch the characters develop in their timelines. I'm interested to see how it all comes together by the end.