We follow the story of the Vignes twin sisters from a majority-black town in Louisiana so small you can't find it on a map.
At 16, they both run away together in search of a better life far away from their small-town roots. After a few years of being on the run together, the twins separate - one "passing" over to become white, completely severing ties and communication with her family.
Bennett weaves together an emotional family history, race, and the desire to be someone other than yourself.
I believe I saw it on Obama's recommended book list from 2020, and it was one of the most popular books being requested in my Overdrive library app.
I didn't have many expectations or ideas about the plot as I started reading this book - other than knowing it was popular.
As with most fiction books for me, it took me a little while to start investing in the outcomes for the characters, but once I started feeling it, I got pulled in deep. I sympathized with each character, and ultimately the book developed into a page-turner where I needed to figure out what happened to everyone.
I was struck by the vast complexities of the underlying themes of race, women's rights, poverty. Throughout the story, many of the characters reinvent themselves to new environments and situations - sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. It felt like each person in the book was constantly reinventing themselves, but it led them ultimately to find out how to be comfortable with who they were all along.
The prose and storytelling were fantastic. I genuinely felt for each character Bennett described. Even as my feelings ranged from positive to outright disdain I liked how Bennett let you in on the inner monologues across the character set.
While I enjoyed being able to dive into the psyche of each character at different points of their lives, it felt like you were always skimming a bit across themes. Bennett also tackles many societal issues throughout the novel (racism, classism, poverty, women's rights, transgender), which makes it a bit hard to go really deep on any one of them in particular through the story.
Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.
The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it,
Big thinking crushed by reality—that’s what he’d inherited.
If nothing could be done about ugliness, you ought to at least look like you were trying to hide it.
The world worked differently than he’d ever imagined. People you loved could leave and there was nothing you could do about it. Once he’d grasped that, the inevitability of leaving, he became a little older in his own eyes.
People thought that being one of a kind made you special. No, it just made you lonely. What was special was belonging with someone else.
She was never up to anything, of course, her days blending together into a sameness that she later found comforting.
Sometimes she wondered if Miss Vignes was a separate person altogether. Maybe she wasn’t a mask that Stella put on. Maybe Miss Vignes was already a part of her, as if she had been split in half. She could become whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.
The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.
That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone.
There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.
Leaving was simple. Staying was the part she’d never quite mastered.
He offered to drive her, not out of kindness, but because Desiree loved Stella and that was how love worked, wasn’t it? A transference, leaping onto you if you inched close enough.
That was the thing about death. Only the specifics of it hurt. Death, in a general sense, was background noise.
Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.