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The Vanishing Half

Review

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s debut, THE MOTHERS, was one of the most well-regarded novels of the year when it was published in 2016. Many readers have been eagerly awaiting Bennett’s next project, and the good news is that her sophomore effort, THE VANISHING HALF, is every bit as thoughtfully and skillfully written as its predecessor.

Until they were adults, the only time that Desiree and Stella Vignes were separated was the seven minutes between when Desiree was born and when her identical sister followed her into the world. The two girls grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, a village so small that it didn’t appear on any maps. Mallard was an overwhelmingly African American community, but one in which being light-skinned was prized above all other attributes. And in that regard, the Vignes sisters were especially lucky. In fact, when the two young women escape Mallard (and a seemingly certain future of domestic service like their mother’s) and head to New Orleans, Stella is stunned and delighted when she is mistaken for a white woman during a job interview.

"The sisters’ journey is by turns triumphant, painful, joyful and strange --- and readers will come away deeply affected by what their parallel stories reveal about human identity and race in America."

Stella’s desire to pass for white goes beyond a yearning for respect or greater options. When she and Desiree were children, they witnessed their father’s lynching at the hands of a white mob. No one needs to tell them about the perils of being identified as black in America. Once Stella decides to live her life as a white woman, there’s no turning back --- any association with her past life would blow her cover --- and so, for decades, the sisters, once so close, become completely alienated from one another. “The passe blanc were a mystery,” Bennett writes. “You could never meet one who’d passed over undetected, the same way you’d never know someone who successfully faked her own death; the act could only be successful if no one ever discovered it was true.”

Desiree also manages to escape the suffocating atmosphere of Mallard, at least for a while, spending time in Washington, DC, and marrying a respected black lawyer --- who also happens to have a taste for beating her. Desiree and her seven-year-old daughter, Jude, flee this abusive household and, in 1968, return to Mallard --- where Jude, who has extremely dark skin, encounters prejudice from within this insular community.

From this point, THE VANISHING HALF follows the divergent but equally fascinating lives of Desiree and her daughter, Jude, and Stella and her daughter, Kennedy. Stella, terrified of discovery, questions her attitude toward a black neighbor who moves into her exclusively white subdivision in suburban Los Angeles. Jude and Kennedy, who meet as college students, struggle to reconcile their personal identities with their growing understanding of family.

Throughout, Bennett thoughtfully addresses questions of identity and performance --- of race, gender and identity itself --- and wrenchingly interrogates how the impulsive choices Desiree and Stella make in their youth not only divide them but also shape their entire futures. The “vanishing half” of the book’s title offers much room for reflection --- Desiree and Stella are in some ways two halves of a whole (“Sometimes being a twin had felt like living with another version of yourself.”), but for Stella, in particular, her decision to pass as white segments her life story, and her identity, in ways that always will feel alienating and strange. “She’d lived a life split between two women --- each real, each a lie,” Bennett reflects near the end of Stella’s narrative.

The sisters’ journey is by turns triumphant, painful, joyful and strange --- and readers will come away deeply affected by what their parallel stories reveal about human identity and race in America.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 5, 2020

The Vanishing Half
by Brit Bennett

  • Publication Date: June 2, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525536299
  • ISBN-13: 9780525536291