Maximum Shelf: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained fa├žade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Set in the old capital city of Cyprus, this is a beautiful, sad novel about human relationships and hard choices, who is seen and unseen.

With Songbirds, Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo) shines a light on social issues through the story of one woman’s disappearance. The central character is absent from the beginning and remains a mystery until the novel’s final pages.

“One day, Nisha vanished and turned to gold.” Nisha is a Sri Lankan immigrant to Cyprus, where she works in the capital city of Nicosia as maid to Petra, a widow, and her nine-year-old daughter, Aliki. Petra’s upstairs tenant Yiannis is Nisha’s secret lover (maids are not permitted lovers). This absorbing novel opens after Nisha has gone missing, and is told in chapters that alternate between Petra’s and Yiannis’s points of view as they mourn and search for Nisha.

Nisha is representative of numerous migrant worker women in Cyprus, largely from Vietnam, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Petra observes, “The maids here did everything–they were hired and paid (lower than the minimum wage) to clean the house, but ended up being child-carers, shop assistants, waitresses.” Also: “I had started to see the rhythm of these women with new eyes–how the whole neighborhood pulsed with their activity. They had been invisible to me before Nisha had gone missing.”

Although her neighbors are quick to write off the disappearance as abandonment, with the assumptions of casual racism, Petra knows this is out of character. Nisha is devoted to Aliki, and besides she’s left behind her passport and most precious possessions, relics of her late husband and her own daughter in Sri Lanka. The police won’t help. Petra mounts her own investigation, eventually teaming up with a distraught Yiannis, who is facing challenges of his own. He feels trapped by his involvement in the criminal poaching of songbirds, and especially conflicted because he’d grown up feeling so close to nature.

Lefteri deftly weaves Yiannis’s pain at his illegal work and the loss of his love with Petra’s growing realizations about her own culture and Aliki’s attachment to her missing caretaker. Nisha, “a dark and beautiful shadow, who rattled around in old sandals and with fire in her eyes,” is the center of this story, but an absence; the two speaking characters triangulate the third, and readers don’t hear Nisha’s own voice until the very end. Moving human characters and careful depiction of natural spaces contribute to a contemplative tone. Songbirds is quietly urgent in its treatment of Nicosia’s maids, lyrical in its descriptions, and thoughtful, compassionate and important.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 makeshift oars.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Looks like I need a new way to talk about novels like this: huge and sweeping in its scope, but in a neat, tidy package, right at 300 pages. The Travelers opens with a Cast of Characters, like a play, which made me a little nervous, and indeed I needed to use it some throughout, although less so in the second half once I got situated. These characters come from a few families over a few generations. Cast of Characters is followed by Time (“from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term”), Settings of Note (Amagansett, Long Island; Buckner County, Georgia; New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Brittany, France; Berlin, Germany; and Vietnam”) and Background, which discusses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which made me still more nervous; what is this book I am entering? But it turned out wonderfully.

Where to begin? Clearly I cannot tell you about all these characters and happenings on several continents over several decades. I’m still not sure how Porter has managed to do it in 300 pages. Among my favorites, though, are definitely Agnes and Eloise, who were lovers as young women in Buckner County, Georgia, but who go on to live long, full, well-traveled lives, while never ceasing to circle each other at least in their minds and at least a little. (“Just because you couldn’t stand someone didn’t mean you no longer loved them.”) The man Agnes marries has an obsession with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that begins when he is serving in the Vietnam War, and remains ties to a trauma from that time period; his odd relationship to an odd play, and its impact on his and Agnes’s two daughters, was a fascinating through-line for me. There are plotlines that are linked to race, as well as gender and sexuality, another expansive dimension to the novel that I appreciate. I think what I’m most marveling at here is the compression: now that I’m trying to tell you about this book, I’m amazed at how much was in it, at how much American history got slipped into a story about regular people.

It’s absorbing. There are some problematic characters that I still felt for, and some downright entrancing characters (like Eloise, who trains as a pilot in homage to her hero, the real-life Bessie Coleman) who I already miss. The overall impression is spellbinding, really. I like that settings recur, and characters appear and reappear in new arrangements with each other – new relationships. These threads form a weave that help this somewhat sprawling plot and cast to cohere. It could have been too much to keep together, but it makes just enough sense, with the recurring connections. Oh, and photographs: chapters are headed by small black-and-white images, and there are a few more within the text. A ‘photo credits’ section is a great bonus. The images come from true history, while the novel is of course fiction, but they add historical authenticity; so this Black soldier in Vietnam is not the one I’m reading about (because the latter is a fiction), but it adds a layer.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this enormous, deceptively slim novel for a long time.


Rating: 8 pieces of pecan pie.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred is interesting to me in several ways. First, Octavia Butler stands out as a Black woman in a genre – science fiction – that is still awfully short on non-men and non-white writers, and was practically devoid of either when she began publishing scifi in the 1970s. This novel, her bestselling and I think best-known, might be more easily classified as fantasy than scifi, although I’m not going to get caught up in that labels argument. (I’ve tagged it as horror, here, too.) Either way, it is also very much realism and well based in history. Our protagonist, Dana, is a modern 1970s Black woman who suddenly finds herself time-traveled into the 1810s. “Time travel was science fiction in nineteen seventy-six. In eighteen nineteen–Rufus was right–it was sheer insanity.” Rufus is a young red-headed boy who she quickly understands has the (unwitting) ability to “call” her to his time when he is in danger; she seems bound to protect him. Because… it turns out he is her ancestor.

So we have the grandfather paradox, which ironically was just the other day explained to me by the character Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. Rufus grows into a deeply problematic white man and slaveowner, but she must preserve his life, even facilitate his relationship with the enslaved woman Alice who will bear his children, to ensure her own birth. Talk about tough subject matter and moral relativism. Back “home” in the 1970s, Dana is married to a white man, one of the good ones, named Kevin. But even the good ones may turn out to be a little troubling, especially when Kevin manages to get transported back in time with his wife. In the 1800s, Kevin can help protect Dana by posing as her master, but that only leads to more lines to be blurred.

This scifi/fantasy plot draws heavily on history. My paperback edition includes a critical essay at the back by Robert Crossley, who points out that Kindred is a sort of fictional memoir, following the traditions of slave narratives, which Butler studied closely. Aside from the time travel element, this story could be considered strict realism. And the time travel could be considered a literalization of a more metaphoric need to enter into another time – one far less distant than we are sometimes tempted to feel – and understand it better, because the forces of racism (and sexism) are alive and well. (While race is the forefront issue here, gender is absolutely at play as well, in the dynamics within slavery as well as the modern marriage of Dana and Kevin, among other places.)

Butler’s skills are on display. Dana’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and immediate; we experience panic, fear, rage, helplessness, and more along with her. Her relationships with Kevin and with Rufus, with Alice and with other enslaved people, are complex; the society of slaves offers a few apparent ‘types’ which Butler then immediately complicates, and Dana’s own biases are exposed in the process.

Topically, this is an important book to read and to think about. ‘Purely’ as a novel, it’s a hell of a ride, fast-paced and high-stakes and absorbing. Dana’s voice is compelling and intimate; she’s flawed and complicated and completely believable. It’s one of those stories it’s hard to look away from. Butler’s reputation is well deserved.


Rating: 8 aspirins.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Another great one that threatened to keep me up all night long. Keep ’em coming.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a YA novel of romance, fate, science, race, and more; 98% of it takes place in a single day in New York City. It stars two delightful and very different teenagers. Natasha is a serious science geek and impassioned fan of 90s grunge music, who firmly believes in provable facts and none of that gooey bubblegum stuff about love. She came to the United States when she was eight as an undocumented immigrant, like both her parents; only her little brother was born in the country, and now – thanks to her father’s unbelievable idiocy – the family is just hours away from deportation to Jamaica, a country that definitely does not feel like Natasha’s home.

Daniel is the younger son of Korean immigrants. His high-achieving older brother is their parents’ darling (of course), and a bully, and objectively a serious asshole; he’s just been kicked out of Harvard (Best School), though, so that’s something. Daniel has his Yale interview today (Second Best School), because he’s trying to follow the intended path and become a doctor, but what Daniel really wants to be is a poet. He is all dreams.

You can already see the drama setting up: Natasha and Daniel run into each other on this momentous day, as she attempts a last-minute legal defense against deportation and he approaches the Yale alum he’s meant to impress. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re drawn together nonetheless. Daniel intends that they will fall in love. Natasha, naturally, is having none of it. There are only hours to spare. Chapters shift between the points of view of Natasha and Daniel as well as a handful of others: side characters we’ll see for just glimpses, or a more omniscient view, including ‘future histories’ and etymologies (‘irie’), a ‘history of naming,’ a ‘history of decay.’ The effect is kaleidoscopic, and transcendent. The cumulative tone is frequently hilarious – both teens’ voices are darling, and Daniel especially is a riot; it is poignant in the ways of teenaged love; and, as established by a Carl Sagan-infused prologue, there is an all-encompassing, cosmic-scale sense of gravity and wonder.

This is a pitch-perfect story, lightning-paced as Natasha’s last day in the States and frenzied as young love, but serious as death, too. It’s absorbing, a world to get lost in. On one level it’s very much about race, racism, immigration and culture. Daniel’s father owns a Black beauty shop, like so many Korean-Americans do, and the book pauses to discuss the global forces that have set up this odd truth. Natasha wears her hair natural – which for some is a political statement, but (again the novel pauses to note, in one of those neat asides) it can also be simpler than that. “In the future, she may make it straight again. She does it because she wants to try something new. She does it simply because it looks beautiful.” I love this narrative voice: here is “an African American history” of hair; here is some of the weighty meaning that accrues; and also, here is a young woman who just wears her hair like she likes it. All of these at once.

The romance story that is the heart of this novel is very sweet and engaging. The topical content is well done and not preachy. The conversation between hyperrationality (Natasha) and dreaminess (Daniel) could have been cutesy and pat, but it’s not: it’s thought-provoking, expansive, and smart. I am, again, impressed with what YA can be. And I am therefore now interested in Yoon’s previous novel, Everything, Everything. I really think there’s something in this book for everyone. I am completely charmed. What a beautiful, book-filled world.


Rating: 8 little notebooks.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.

I’m on a roll: here’s yet another book that threatened to keep me up all night. When I finished reading this novel, I went immediately to buy Brit Bennett’s first book, The Mothers. So far there are just the two; I hope she’s writing right this minute.

The Vanishing Half begins in a curious town called Mallard in Louisiana, just two hours west of New Orleans, founded by a man whose father once owned him and whose mother hated his lightness. “He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then [1848, when he thought up the town] 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 once before.” And so Mallard, “a town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

This colorism suffuses the novel, which is about family and secrets and the identities we inherit and choose for ourselves and those we cannot, and so much more, but always about race and color too. From that founder, generations later, are descended a pair of girl twins who watch their daddy get lynched and then run away from Mallard to New Orleans, where they part ways. One lives her life as a Black woman, and eventually returns to Mallard with a child “blueblack… like she flown direct from Africa.” The other crosses over, and becomes White.

You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.

Usually I get nervous when I read about ‘multigenerational sagas’ that I’m looking at a 500+ page book. This one is just 343 in my hardback edition, but does span generations – chiefly the twins and their daughters – and the country, from Louisiana to Hollywood to New York City, with other brief stopovers. It went by quickly (again, I had to force myself to sleep and finish it on day two). And yet it feels enormous. I’ve traveled so far, I feel like, with these women (centrally) and men. The plot centers on problems of race and of colorism within the Black community, but it also handles gender, sexuality, class, art, personal agency, and especially and in several forms, questions about family and love and hurting those we love, keeping secrets (as a form of love and wounding), and those questions about chosen identities (gender as well as race). I do love these Big Questions. But Bennett is also astonishing at plot, scene, and character – there are so many characters here whose stories, even briefly, captivate. I mourn closing this book (which is why I instantly ordered Bennett’s other one). Don’t even wait: do yourself a favor and get into The Vanishing Half, if you haven’t already. I wish I could read it again for the first time.


Rating: 9 worn calculus textbooks.
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