At first, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was not a book I thought I would pick up as I don’t often gravitate toward titles I see repeatedly reviewed by bookstagrammers and reviewers I follow on social media. However, for whatever reason, this book caught my eye and I was intrigued to see what all the hype was about.
The synopsis: The story takes place in a small town in Louisiana called Mallard where everyone knows everything about everybody. It follows two twin girls, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who are absolutely inseparable. But when the pair decide to run away at age 16, it doesn’t take very long for the sisters to lean on their own independence – ultimately losing touch with each other and reconstructing their identities as individuals.
The Vanishing Half is a compelling tale that explores the complexities of race, family ties, sibling bonds, and overall identity across multiple generations.
My review: In the beginning, I became quite invested in the relationship between Adele Vignes (Stella and Desiree’s mom) and Early Jones. A few chapters in, it becomes clear that their relationship isn’t a major plot point, but I wish Bennett would’ve continued that narrative as I found it quite captivating. I also felt that the chapters jumped around a little too much; a lot of time was spent with Desiree’s daughter, Jude, but the story as a whole focused more on the intricate relationship between the twins. Stella got her fair share of “air time,” so I think it would’ve felt more cohesive if Desiree’s perspective was equally addressed.
In addition, I felt the ending was anti-climactic. While there are still plenty of takeaways from the book overall, the second half felt a bit unfinished.
“I’ve made a fortune off it, and I would really like for you to have it all to your own again-you know, the thing itself, for old time’s sake, just to have, to really be yours, keep in your closet or whatever, get out and look at it, like in old days, you know? Because I know how much you loved it. I got to where I loved it myself, actually.”
The Goldfinch is full of intricate ties and coincidences, and every event that takes place somehow relates back to one moment, when he was a 13-year-old boy whose mother was killed in a terrorist attack at a New York museum. At the time of the explosion, Theo’s mother was in a separate room from her son, looking at the painting of The Goldfinchby Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. After being knocked out for some time, Theo thoughtlessly steals the painting and wanders out of the museum, The Goldfinch under his arm, completely ignored by the police and everyone he passes, until he finally reaches his mother’s apartment. From there, the story continues to go downhill for Theo, as he is taken by his estranged alcoholic father, to a new, seedy home in Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, Theo befriends an outsider like himself, the Russian-born and substance-abuse expert, Boris. Boris drags Theo down, and the two find themselves spending their days drinking incessantly and doing whatever drugs they can get their hands on. Meanwhile, the painting, like his mother’s ghost, haunts him at every twist and turn. Finally giving in to his fear of discovery and guilt for his impulsive theft years ago, Theo wraps The Goldfinch heavily in cardboard and rags, deciding never to look at it again, but at the same time keeping it close by.
The painting symbolizes Theo himself: he is chained to his mother’s death as long as this goldfinch is chained to a post. He can’t get rid of this painting, the same way he can’t shake off the memories of his mother and the terrorist attack that has single-handedly destroyed his life. He grasps for solace in dark things, such as drugs and lies, and only searches for the bad within the good he does have. As Boris tells Theo, ten years after the two have left Las Vegas, of their young drinking days, “I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.”
At times Theo is confused by his feelings for Boris, and the relationship borders on something more than their friendship’ They’ve both been through such rough experiences and have no one else to love, and therefore they depend on each other. Boris can hold Theo tightly at night not because he is in love with Theo, but because he loves Theo, as his closest confidante, the one person he can always depend on. But Theo, a born-and-bred New Yorker, can’t handle the careless Las Vegas lifestyle, and after his father dies, he runs away back to New York City, leaving Boris to fend for himself alone.
Years later, Boris comes to New York City to find Theo and admits that he stole The Goldfinch, thinking that Theo would have already discovered the textbook Boris put in its place. But the artwork has been preserved by Theo who has kept is wrapped up tightly and in storage. He is completely shocked when Boris tells him that he switched the painting with a math book and has been using it as a tool in illegal dealings: “I switched it. Yes. It was me. I thought you knew. Look, am sorry… I had it in my locker at school. Joke, you know… I swear, I wasn’t going to keep it.” All those years, Theo had been harboring guilt and fearing the authorities, when he was actually off the hook.
From then on the tone of the book shifts and becomes more fast-paced, as if Tartt finally decides she wants to get to the point and is tired of the story’s drawn-out plot. The audience is swept out of the US and into Amsterdam, where the painting is being held as collateral by drug dealers. During a violent scuffle for the painting, Boris gets shot and Theo saves the life of his boyhood friend by shooting and killing the enemy. The next few chapters becomes a hazy, discontented mess as Theo throws himself into drugs and illness while deciding whether or not to commit suicide because they did not save the goldfinch from the drug dealers, just as Theo cannot save himself.
The Goldfinch is a sad, beautifully written journey of the tormented soul of Theo Decker, a boy who tragically lost his mother and with her, his morals and sense of self. The Goldfinch explores the dark side of a person while perfectly delivering the message that life is only temporary, just like a painting that can slip from one’s grasp so easily.
“He had never been able to understand the assumption of intimacy fans felt with those they had never met.”
—The Cuckoo’s Calling
The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith is about an ex-army man and private investigator Cormoran Strike and Robin, his pretty, young, temporary assistant, and their quest to get to the bottom of an unexpected suicide. Although they are concrete characters, neither are particularly interesting.
The heart of The Cuckoo’s Calling is the compelling and heartbreaking story of Lula Landry, a beautiful but dead superstar model who was harassed constantly by the paparazzi, and how their interference led to her ultimate decision to commit suicide.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a fictional account and an allegorical dig about the world today, and how obsessed we are as a society with the lives of celebrities, dead or alive, and how even friends and families of celebrities are not immune to being the subjects of overblown stories in the media. Society treats these actors, models, musicians and the myths surrounding them as reality, when there is so much we don’t know and are not supposed to know about other people’s private lives.
The novel goes through the process of Strike slowly uncovering bit by bit pieces of the truth surrounding beautiful Lula Landry’s death by trying to experience life through her eyes–he goes out on a night drinking with a model friend of Lula’s, Ciara Porter, and Lula’s ex-boyfriend Evan Duffield; he meets with Lula’s homeless friend Rochelle, who is oddly murdered only hours after meeting with Strike; and he and Robin snoop around Lula’s favorite clothing shop, where they find more answers from the gossipy saleswomen about how Lula was acting on the day she died.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is Rowling’s second jab at writing in the mystery and crime genre. It was not an easy book to read and I could only read a few chapters at a time, since much of the writing felt flat. It is a solid mystery, but not one that I would recommend as my first choice. There are much better mysteries and thrillers that are far more engaging like those from Gillian Flynn or classics from Agatha Christie. If you are just getting started in the mystery genre, I would consider picking up something from a more established writer of these tales. The Cuckoo’s Calling won’t blow you away.
“But we were both shaken by what we’d seen. It was as though someone had peeled the mask off certainty and our first-world assumptions about safety. Bombs happened halfway around the globe, not nearby. We were used to abstract faraway injustices and violence. We’d been cushioned our whole lives, and had no idea how to act or what to think when faced with this disaster.
Today that episode felt like ten years ago, not four. I felt so much older, drinking whiskey in the morning so I could sleep. The things I’d seen since then. The gnawing in my bones of a kind of tired I knew wasn’t healthy. But I was so used to it, it didn’t matter anymore.”
—Holding Still for as Long as Possible
Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall is a portrait of three people representative of the “Y” generation. These twenty somethings grew up after 9/11 in a society generously prescribing pills to numb the pain and anxiety of living in a culture on steroids. Texting their relationships; dousing their troubles with alcohol; and living in a fog, confused about who they really are, Whittal’s characters tenuously maintain a grip on their daily lives.
Josh is a female-to-male transgender working as a paramedic, and he spends his days and nights becoming more emotionally-distant from the terrible events he sees. He starts to take his emotionally detached feelings into his relationship with Amy, a rich girl who is trying to live a cool bohemian city life with her amateur film-making career. At the same time Josh is becoming distant, Amy is finding being around Josh is annoying her for no apparent reason other than their relationship is starting to become less exciting and more mundane.
Billy (real name: Hilary) gets thrown into the mix when her long-time girlfriend Marie breaks up with her and Billy moves in with Roxy, who is Amy and Josh’s mutual friend. Billy is a has-been child music star who came and went from the spotlight quickly, and blew all her money in the process. Billy tries to make a living by going to college (and constantly skipping classes) and working as a waitress, but her full-blown anxiety doesn’t leave her alone, and her ex-girlfriend is the only one who understands how to deal with Billy and her anxiety issues.
One day Billy runs into Josh and Amy on the street and immediately garners a crush on Josh. She’s too flirtatious and self-absorbed to care enough about Amy’s feelings, and immediately goes for the kill, although she uses self-protecting language at first, such as “Josh, I think you and I are going to know each other for a long time.” Josh and Amy eventually break up, though they remain together in the same apartment, and Josh continues dating Billy, even though Billy is starting to drive him crazy because she won’t fully commit to the relationship. In a turn of events, Amy starts seeing Billy’s ex, Maria, and although Amy acts as though she’s dating Maria because she’s attracted to her, there’s an obvious dig towards Billy for stealing Josh.
The characters in Holding Still for as Long as Possible are the most selfish people in Toronto, possibly the world. They never think about each others feelings, but only how others will react to them. Although Billy is self-absorbed and wallows in her anxiety problems, Josh is the most self-centered and insecure of the group. His skills as a paramedic of being unaffected by other people’s trauma has left him incapable of being expressive outside of the workplace. His impassive personality brought on the majority of difficulties in his and Amy’s romance. At one point she asks him, “You just don’t want me to be happy, do you?”
Josh is so consumed with his own feelings for the two women in his life that he doesn’t even see the problems going on in his coworkers’ lives, such as not knowing fellow paramedic Dave was gay—and even then, Josh turned it into his own problem: “He looked at me, just as close, and all of a sudden I saw that he knew about me.” When Billy and Amy get into an accident with a truck, Josh is furious at Amy for surviving, and although he is upset that Billy may not live, he still manages to spin his emotions so that he’s the victim and Billy’s the bad one: “For some reason, she thinks Billy’s the victim of my uncertainty when it’s the other way around.”
In the end, Billy and Josh deserve each other: they’re both so interested in themselves that they are a reflection of one another, two people Amy never should have had to deal with in the first place. Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a great book: there is a lot of egotism, but it’s all so realistic you’ll find yourself hating and loving the characters as they go about their daily lives and messed-up relationships. The book is honest as it captures the raw emotions of these young people who are just trying to survive the monotonous lives in which they exist. They are all trying to figure out who they want to be, but they don’t have the ability for introspection and deeper thought. Their world of technology and text-messaging, and stuffing real emotions, has left them unable to form bonds with other humans and solve their problems by sharing them face-to-face.
“The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find it is more than a simple hall. You are met not with floor-length unadorned planes of mirrored glass, as you half expected, but hundreds of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes, each in a different frame.
As you move past one mirror reflecting your boots, the mirror next to it shows only empty spaces and the mirrors on the other side. Your scarf is not present in one mirror and then it returns in the next….
As you walk farther into the room it becomes a field of endless streetlamps, the stripes repeating in fractal patterns, over and over and over.” –The Night Circus
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a beautifully crafted story over 500 pages long, yet it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The novel is about two lovers bound to each other since childhood. Unbeknownst to them their destinies are intertwined in a competition where only one can be left standing.
Celia is a young girl when her mother commits suicide and she is brought to her father, the great illusionist Prospero the Enchanter, otherwise known as Hector Bowen. To win a bet with the man only known throughout the book as Alexander or Mr. A.H, Bowen commits his 6-year-old daughter to participate in a game. Alexander adopts his player, Marco, just three years Celia’s senior, from an orphanage and begins to teach him all he knows about illusions.
When the Night Circus first came to fruition from the great and eccentric mind of Chandresh Christoph Lefevre, Celia and Marco had no idea that they were to be pitted against each other. But once the event was underway for several years they both realized that they had been set in opposition to each other from the start. They fall in love anyway and their relationship sets off a domino effect of events resulting most often in the deaths of beloved circus employees.
While Marco, with his magical intelligence, holds the circus together with charms (such as slowing down everyone’s aging so that the circus employees seems to never mature), Celia goes on a mission to end the competition and keep everyone she loves out of harm’s way.
The plot is the strongest part of the book and it will keep the reader flipping the pages. Morgenstern undoubtedly knew exactly how the circus should unfold in her mind, and how the characters’ interactions and discoveries of each other would develop. Another striking aspect of the book is Morgenstern’s brilliant descriptions: each beautiful old home, every musty library, and every inch of the circus is filled with beautiful images, and she makes it easy for one to sink into the setting: “The entire compartment looks like an explosion in a library, piles of books and paper amongst the velvet-covered benches and polished-wood tables. The light dances around the room with the motion of the train, bouncing off the crystal chandeliers.”
The characters are all quirky in their own ways, but while reading the story, I felt like I never got to really know Marco and Celia as well as I would have liked. They’re in love, but you never really see it develop except for the fact that they were smitten the moment they saw each other. But they hardly have interactions in which I felt their love over their lust. The rest of the cast and their reasons for being in The Night Circus, however, are so worth the read.
Before you pick up the other well-known circus-related book Water for Elephants, pick up The Night Circus. The Night Circus is much more fun and has a more developed story and setting, and believe me, by the end of it you’ll be hoping for a movie, and a real Night Circus you can attend.