Review: The Vanishing Half
Updated: Sep 12
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (2020)
In 2016 I read Bennett's debut novel, The Mothers... which was... ok. It was lacking a little in style and sophistication. The premise was really interesting, but the execution of it didn't end up being as impressive as I'd hoped for.
The Vanishing Half, on the other hand, was everything it promised to be. It is the complex, messy, and beautiful story of twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950's - a town so small it doesn't even show up on any maps. The town was founded by a former slave whose mother was Black and whose father was his former white master. With light skin being valued highly, this man marries another light-skinned former slave, and dreams of creating a town of Black people whose descendants become lighter and lighter with each generation. Stella and Desiree, descendants of that founder, have seemingly achieved that dream. The town is full of light-skinned Black residents, and they are amongst the lightest. The townspeople pride themselves on their "beige" skin, but still identify as Black.
But when the twins run off to New Orleans together at the age of 16, they start on very different paths... One chooses to remain Black, eventually marrying a dark-skinned man and having a daughter, Jude, who is equally as dark. The other chooses to pass for white, marries a white man, and has a daughter, Kennedy, who lives a life of privilege growing up as a blonde, white girl. The story spans from the 1950s - 1990s, moving back and forth between the two worlds of Desiree/Jude, and Stella/Kennedy, and follows the characters as those worlds begin to collide.
There are so many fascinating themes in this novel including, obviously, racial passing, but also domestic abuse, transsexuality and gender constructs, societal norms and feminism, colorism, classism, and racial inequality. The issues are as relevant today as they would have been in the 1950s, and Bennett does a wonderful job of making them all feel meaningful while not overloading the plot with too much heady reflection. The most poignant parts of the book for me are those moments when the characters struggle to define who they are. After all, "who am I?" is a universal question we all ask ourselves at some point. What makes me who I am? Is it the people I choose to surround myself with, or the people who raised me? How do the stories people tell about who I am end up influencing who I become, and how I define myself? And what happens when those stories change? Which parts of my "me-ness" change with them, and which are fixed?
The Vanishing Half takes a deep dive into the meaning of identity and of family. It's not always comfortable, but that's what makes it realistic and powerful. The relationships feel authentic, with struggles and secrets and grief, but also love and growth and forgiveness. I loved this story and I loved the fact that it doesn't wrap everything up in a tidy bow. It's complicated. You know, like life.
Word on the (online) street is that HBO will be adapting this story for TV (and, separately, The Mothers is also being adapted into a feature film).
Thank you to Shannon for sending me this book! It moved on to my mom, and now there are two more friends who plan to borrow it too. :)
Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction
UP NEXT: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson