Books I’m Reading: Wives and Daughters; The Vanishing Half

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Part 1: Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

For several years I’ve been part of an on-again-off-again virtual book club. Recently we read Wives and Daughters, and instead of waiting until we were finished with the book to start discussing it, we had weekly reading goals followed by weekly WhatsApp chats. It was rather a nice way to read a classic, I thought.

Wives and Daughters is about a girl named Molly Gibson who lives with her father, a widowed doctor. They get along swimmingly until Molly turns 17 and Mr. Gibson suddenly realizes that men are starting to pursue her. Panicked and unable to properly chaperone her, he sends her to live with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hamley, until he can find a better solution.

His “better solution,” then, is to get re-married, and in doing so, Molly not only gains a stepmother but a step-sister as well. Meanwhile, she remains friends with Mr. and Mrs. Hamley as well as their two eligible sons, Osborne and Roger.

The story is mostly about these eight people and their relationships with each other, focusing on Molly as she comes of age and falls in love.

Reading this lovely book, I realized that I really like the trope of two sisters befriending/falling in love with two brothers. I like it because there are four potential romantic relationships that can result, so you as a reader are always on your toes, not sure where the plot is going to go. Also, since they’re all close as a group, some of them will have platonic cross-gender relationships, which is always fun.

Meanwhile, the author is adding depth with the sibling relationships as well. So with only four characters, you’re looking at six different types of relationships playing out.

I’m not sure how common this trope is. Besides Wives and Daughters, it’s also present in I Capture the Castle. Most of Jane Austen’s books play with this trope too. In Pride and Prejudice it’s best friends instead of brothers, and there is no ambiguity about who will choose who. Emma and Sense and Sensibility both feature a pair of siblings marrying a pair of siblings, but one couple is already married and somewhat faded into the background of the plot. Mansfield Park does the most with this trope, keeping you on your toes about who is going to fall in love with who, although the final pairing makes me a bit uncomfortable if I’m gonna be honest.

Wives and Daughters is similar to Austen’s books, but focuses less on the romance and more on other relationships. It also explores class distinction in a deeper way than Austen does, and features characters who are slightly lower on the social ladder. Sort-of the Harriet Smiths and Robert Martins of the town.

I will warn you though…the ending is a bit unique, because Elizabeth Gaskell died before she finished the last chapter. When the book ends, you know that everything is going to end up all right, but then it abruptly stops before we get to see all the happy stuff play out.

In lieu of a last chapter, her editor wrote a note explaining how things were going to end, since Gaskell had told him as well as some of her family about how she planned to end it. So it ends nicely. However, my copy of the book was one of those sketchy cheap self-published Amazon versions, and it didn’t have that editor’s note at the end. It just ended abruptly and that was it.

No one else in my group had that problem, except one of them was mostly listening to an audiobook but sometimes reading a free Kindle version, and the free Kindle version didn’t have the ending note either.

Both the sketchy self-published classics and the free Kindle classics happen when the copyright expires on an old book, so my assumption is that the copyright expired on Wives and Daughters but it somehow didn’t include the little bit at the end written by Frederick Greenwood. Anyway, I’d say just buy your copy at a thrift store or on Thriftbooks, or borrow from the library, and you won’t have an issue.

Part 2: The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

Amy came to me and said, “I had a book on hold at the library, and it just came in, but I don’t have time to read it before I go. Do you want to read it?”

“Sure,” I said. “You know, I think if you like a book that usually means that I’ll like it too.”

Amy laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I’d like this book or not. I just got it because I saw a lot of people talking about it.”

The book in question was The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

This book has a really unique, interesting premise with all these cool parallels. It begins in this little town called Mallard, Louisiana that was founded by a half-black man who inherited land from his slave-owning father. Not knowing where he fit into the world, he wanted Mallard to be a place for mixed-race and light-skinned black people.

Generations later, in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone in the town is obsessed with skin color. They are all considered “colored people,” but they try their hardest to marry people lighter than them so that their children will be even lighter. This is not because they want to be white. They all consider themselves black, even though sometimes a person on the street would never know. They just think that they’re superior to dark-skinned black people.

The book follows a set of twins, one restless and adventurous, the other quiet and studious. They are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the founder, and as teenagers they leave the town and run off to the big city. The restless adventurous twin marries the darkest man she can find and has a very dark-skinned daughter who is quiet and studious. The quiet and studious twin, on the other hand, decides to be white. She leaves her sister and family behind and marries a white man who has no idea of her past. Then she has a pale, blonde, blue-eyed daughter who is restless and adventurous.

Fascinating, right?

Now that I’ve finished the book I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m going to start with the great: The premise was gripping. The idea of the town of light-skinned people who all considered themselves “black” but hated dark-skinned people was not only super interesting, but according to the author, that type of thing actually happened in the south.

Also: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure nowadays as a white person to “educate yourself” and know all these details about the history of race in America. At the same time, the stack of books you’re supposed to read is, frankly, daunting. I really would like to read them at some point, but I already dislike nonfiction so who knows.

But I have a secret opinion that fiction books written by black authors are the best–that is, the most interesting and nuanced–way to understand racial dynamics in the USA. People are complicated, and sometimes it’s easier to show it with fiction than to try to tell it with nonfiction. (Although showing it in memoir is great too.)

Here’s two things that I understood so much better after reading this book:

  1. Colorism. It’s easy to view our racial history as “black people vs white people,” but there were/are a lot of complicated dynamics based on how dark someone is. This book explored them in an informative, nuanced, thought-provoking way.
  2. The shift away from overt racism in the USA. This book opens in the ’60s, flashes back to the ’50s, and then ends in the late ’80s with a few notes on the early ’90s. As the book went on, I noticed a subtle, gradual shift, where there were fewer and fewer cases of people experiencing awful overt discrimination based on their race. But there was never a “yay, things are better now!” moment. It was more of a generational thing–the twins, who had witnessed a lynching in their youth, never really changed their views on race and identity. But their daughters were much more likely to form friendships and romantic relationships with people of a different race.

So with all that great stuff, I was prepared to love the book. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it, I learned from it, but I didn’t love it.

I guess it’s just a bit too basic and too literary for my taste. With Wives and Daughters I talked about one of my favorite tropes, so now I’ll talk about one of my least-favorite ones: the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has deep feelings about family and stuff” trope bores me to tears. And it’s used so often in books. I don’t understand.

And then there’s these lines like, “She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore. She’d lived a life split between two women–each real, each a lie” (260). I just opened the book randomly and found that line, but some version of it is at the end of basically every chapter. Some deep thought about lies and identity and feeling “split.” That goes with the twin theme, you know. I got so tired of it. Let’s just skip ahead to the interesting part, please. When does everyone re-unite? When are the lies exposed?

And that’s where the book, ultimately, lost me. Because that big moment of cathartic reunion never happened. Well it kind-of did, but in the most stretched-out, anti-climactic, confusing, unfinished way possible. Then the book just…ended. Ended without properly reaching the end of anyone’s story. I found it odd and confusing.

I think it just had a good premise but not a fleshed-out plot. I can empathize with this because plots are incredibly difficult to construct, from my personal experience. But. Books without plots are boring. There’s a reason books need plots.

Anyway. Those are my mixed feelings. If you happen to enjoy the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has feelings” trope, and if you don’t mind a bit of plotlessness, I think this is a book you would love.

6 responses to “Books I’m Reading: Wives and Daughters; The Vanishing Half

  1. Both books sound interesting but the Vanishing Half sounds even more interesting since my daughters are biracial and have light skin but not enough to “pass” for white like the twin in the book.. I put “pass” in quotes that’s the word people used to use for light skin black people who chose to pass for white. There was this beautiful light skinned black actress in the 30s named Fredi Washington who refused to pass as white. She had a difficult time finding work because she wasn’t “dark” enough not play a maid and white directors were concerned about casting her with white leading men.
    Oh I didn’t mean to get off topic but I will see if both books are in our little country library.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read The Vanishing Half as well. I did not like it, though. The characters just felt very flat to me. What did you think of the transgender subplot? On the one hand, it seemed kind of shoehorned in. On the other hand, it was an interesting commentary/analogy on “passing.”

    I agree about reading books by Black authors. A few that I’ve loved: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (both of these are middle grade novels) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and anything by Vanessa Davis Griggs. Griggs writes Christian romance novels set in Black churches.

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    • Emily Sara Smucker

      I get the flat character thing–I would have liked to see more growth. That’s partly why the ending bothered me so much.

      I didn’t know what to think of the transgender subplot. In some ways it seemed to only exist, like you said, as a commentary/analogy on “passing,” which made me a bit uncomfortable because gender is such a different thing than race. And because it didn’t really add to the plot at all. Overall I didn’t have too many feelings about it, maybe because it wasn’t a huge part of the story.

      Thanks for the recommendations! I loved “The Hate U Give” and I’ll check out the others!

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  3. I would love to read the Vanishing book. My dad would tell stories of when he was in Gulfport Mississippi and how many mothers feared to take their light skinned children out in public with them. and of course everyone knew who their father was ! Usually a white man who would bring his teenage son for “sex education” before marrying the “pure white girl” on his side of town. One major reason many fought desegregation – the Blacks knew who their fathers were -the White children had no clue how many half brothers/sisters they had. and the White men in town wanted to make sure it stayed that way.

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