The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett and The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

In a moment of delusion in late 2018, I decided to commit to reading one Shakespeare play per month in 2019. And I mostly kept the goal. (The only one I didn’t finish was Much Ado About Nothing in December.) I had already read many of these in college, and even though I was wholly tired of the Bard by the time 2020 rolled around, the plays still felt fresh. I thought King Lear raw and relevant, Hamlet heartbreaking. Twelfth Night made me sad in a “Mean Girls” kind of way. (Please don’t make fun of your steward, Malvolio.) And my college notes from 1997-ish were helpful! Here’s what I read:

Thanks, Shakespeare!

I won’t be reading any Shakespeare for a long time, but if you want to be on the up and up about anything pop culture-related, you should have a general familiarity with the Bard because after all, Shakespeare was sort of the pop culture icon of his time. When one talks of “star-crossed lovers,” they conjure Romeo & Juliet – and West Side Story. When you comfort yourself by thinking “All that glitters (really, it’s ‘glisters’) is not gold,” you’re dialing up The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare didn’t make up these ideas – and in the case of the second quote, he wasn’t even the first to frame the idea that way. But he popularized these tropes, created characters to embody them, and gave the general public the stories to illustrate them.

We like to fling around “Shakespeare-like” as the ultimate compliment. He is known for having embraced the “language of the people,” for taking complicated (i.e. human) emotions, thoughts, and phenomena and making them both accessible and enjoyable. Lin-Manuel Miranda? “Like Shakespeare.” According to Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at NYC’s Public Theater (where Hamilton debuted), “In Shakespeare’s case he elevated it [people’s speech] to iambic pentameter. In Lin-Manuel’s case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing.” {You can view a quick interview with Eustis below.}

In my opinion, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is another one “like Shakespeare.” (Really, people say he’s “like Mozart,” but since music is like language, I’m sticking with my comparison.) According to a piece by Carl Wilson (obviously not the Beach Boy who died in 1998) and published online with the BBC, Brian Wilson is “one [of] the artists who are great but whose greatness is proclaimed to the point of redundancy, taking up more than their share of cultural shelf space. Instead of the overrated, call them the overstocked. It’s a label Wilson would share with The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, or in other arts Picasso, the Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane.” He means this as a roundabout compliment, I think.

{This was staple viewing in our household when it first came out. See? Brian Wilson = wonderful!}

“Shakespeare-like” means taking universal topics like love, identity, jealousy, and romance and cloaking them in accessible language (or melody).

While I don’t think any contemporary author would be quick to self-appoint the “Shakespeare” title (although if so, they are probably men), I think it’s an interesting way to frame how we think about well-written and well-received current books.

I recently read The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett and The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Plot-wise, these books could not be more different. But they both tussle with ideas about identity and leaving behind one life for another. You know what’s a good Shakespearean staple? Cross-dressing, costuming, and surprise identities as a way to propel stories forward.

In The Vanishing Half, which has earned nearly unanimous praise and was named a Good Morning America book club pick, Bennett explores the notion of “passing.” Twins Stella and Desiree grow up in a small Louisiana community comprised of descendants of slaves who were nonetheless “Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek.” As adults, the twins leave Mallard and ultimately go their separate ways, with Stella living life as a white woman with a white husband and white daughter in Los Angeles and Desiree returning to Mallard with her “black as tar” daughter. These identical twins, now out of touch with each other, and living distinctly different – at least to onlookers – lives, illuminate what happens when you try to concoct your identity completely from scratch.

Surprise! It’s a disguise!

Bennett explores ideas of identity: hiding oneself, disguise, and “becoming who we’re meant to be.” As Stella’s daughter recalls her saying in the middle of a mall: “I love shopping. It’s like trying on all the other people you could be.” And it’s not just Stella and Desiree; The Vanishing Half provides readers with a handful of other characters who are doing the same. On some level, everyone engages with fantasies as they attempt to figure out who they are and what kind of life they’d like to lead. Bennett throws readers several bones as they immerse themselves in her very well-structured and total page-turner of a book: “Sometimes who you were came down to the small things.” “The key to staying lost was to never love anything.” “Slipped out of one life into another as easily as stepping into the next room.”

In my opinion, The Vanishing Half tidies itself up for a nearly perfect denouement. It’s not that “everyone lives happily ever after” – even a Shakespearean play leaves room for questions – but we close the book ready for some good book club banter.

The Glass Hotel, on the other hand, exists in murkier and more complex territory. I’m actually using that word “territory” on purpose because Mandel plays very skillfully with the idea of land. The title refers to a luxury hotel on a remote island in British Columbia. Vincent (a woman) and Paul are half siblings whose lives don’t intersect much, and although the novel focuses primarily on Vincent and her rise from orphaned/abandoned young girl to the glamorous companion of a much older Bernie Madoff-esque figure, Paul’s attempt at transforming from a directionless and overeducated addict to a renowned composer murmurs in the background. “How have I come to this foreign planet, so far from home?” Vincent ruminates on her new station. “But it wasn’t just the place, it wasn’t even mostly the place, it was mostly the money that made it foreign and strange.”

The Glass Hotel’s fixation on wealth, setting, and how they’re intertwined makes characters’ “identify formation” especially fascinating. “[Vincent] had studied the habits of the monied with diligence. She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness. But she was ill at ease around the household staff and the caterers, because she feared that if anyone from her home planet were to look at her too closely, they’d see through her disguise.”

Unlike The Vanishing Half, The Glass Hotel, at its end, offers up deep emotion in lieu of “conclusion.” As a reader, I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was feeling, but it was moving. As I wrote on Instagram, this book – with its “feeling” (as well as the blitzing between locales and time periods) – feels likeThe Goldfinch. You kind of put it down going, “Hmm. Wow. Gotta sit on this for a bit. What does it mean?” (Btw, the first blog post I ever wrote was on The Goldfinch and you can read it here.)

Both these books are “popular” (The Glass Hotel is a NYT bestseller), but I’d argue that one – The Vanishing Half – falls into “Shakespeare” territory. As Heller McAlpin wrote for NPR, “[The Vanishing Half is] an even better book [than Bennett’s debut, The Mothers], more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling. It’s also a great read that will transport you out of your current circumstances, whatever they are.”

The Glass Hotel is one of the best books I’ve read this year. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Vanishing Half. (I read them more or less concurrently.) But at nearly 45, I feel pretty over the “trying on identities” thing. I am who I am, and although there are many times I wonder why I don’t fall lock-step with what seems to be “popular,” I’ll take the foggy confusion of The Glass Hotel over appealing and accessible The Vanishing Half. (No one ever said I like the most straightforward way.) Thank you, Shakespeare and Brit Bennett. And thank you to those, like Emily St. John Mandel, who “take it to 11” – who move the “accessibility” factor out just a smidge – in a more nuanced way. (Speaking of which, I can’t wait to read Mandel’s novel Station Eleven!)

Read The Vanishing Half because everyone’s going to be referencing it for years to come. But read The Glass Hotel because it’s important to engage with mystery, with a non-tidy life.

— Related:

A post about Roddy Doyle’s novel Smile, “identity,” and what it means to be a “bitser.”


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