The Vanishing Half Finds an Audience in Turbulent Times

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Vanishing Half,” a critically acclaimed novel about identity and race, is on track to become not just one of the bestselling books of the year, but a 352-page cultural phenomenon.

Initial print sales of the book by Brit Bennett suggest it is becoming a blockbuster with staying power. More than 164,700 print copies have sold since the novel came out in early June, nearly three times the sales of Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” after its first 11 weeks on the market in 2018 and roughly 17,000 more copies than Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” in the same period after its launch in 2017, according to NPD BookScan.

“It’s the kind of sales pattern you would expect to see from a major brand-name author,” said Jaci Updike, president of sales at Penguin Random House, whose imprint Riverhead Books published the novel. She added that If the book were in paperback right now she probably would be putting it at the checkout line in supermarkets.

Walmart and Target have sold the book online from the start. Both just picked it up to sell in stores, and Costco and Sam’s Club will soon—notable moves by mass-market retailers whose limited shelf space often goes to writers who are already famous.

. . . .

“The Vanishing Half” opens in a 1950s Louisiana town that has cultivated a population of light-skinned Black children. Twin sisters flee for New Orleans and see their paths diverge as adults, one holding onto her African-American identity and returning to the town with a dark-skinned baby, the other passing as white and marrying a rich man who thinks her family is dead. Their daughters, strangers to each other, land in southern California, where they are joined by a cast of characters with split identities, including a drag queen and a trans man.

The book about race and the complexities of identity is cinematic in its storytelling, a work of literary fiction that has made multiple “best of” lists, attracted celebrity fans and become a book-club favorite. It arrived as the pandemic was fueling sales of fiction. And it emerged as a touchstone during a national reckoning with racism and white privilege, when people were putting books front and center as a source of greater understanding.

Ms. Bennett has yet to see her novel in a bookstore—she hasn’t set foot in one since the coronavirus lockdowns began. Given the pandemic, the 30-year-old author who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., at first worried no one would notice the book. Then the Black Lives Matter protests hit—her book was released on June 2, the same day people posted black squares on Instagram in solidarity against racial injustice and police brutality—and the thought of promoting it felt grotesque to her.

At the same time, readers were hungering for a voice like Ms. Bennett’s. The novel, her second, debuted at the top of the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, one of the few works of adult fiction by a Black woman to do so in recent years. HBO paid seven figures for the screen rights in a 17-bidder auction, with Ms. Bennett signed on to executive produce a limited series.

. . . .

In his review for The Wall Street Journal, critic Sam Sacks wrote: “My hope is that the warranted praise Ms. Bennett receives for this novel will have less to do with her efficient handling of timely, or ‘relevant,’ subject matter than for her insights into the mysterious compound of what we call truth: a mixture of the identities we’re born with and those we create.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)