"The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it's not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it's everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters' storylines intersect? Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise"--
The thing is, I don't have the words or experiences to do the novel justice. I am white. I was born into a lower-middle-class family of educators. We did not have a lot of money, but we were not poor by any means. We lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and never had to worry about crime or violence. I went to predominantly white schools, with just enough diversity for the school district leaders to feel good about themselves. The police were not something to fear but something to honor and respect. I did not have to choose between my education or getting a job when I was a teenager; I got a job for spending money only. I almost never had to worry about the color of my skin when in certain situations, although I am ashamed to admit that there were certain neighborhoods we passed through to get to my brother's baseball games where we would lock the doors and try not to call attention to ourselves for fear of harassment or even violence against ourselves. In other words, Stella's and Desiree's situations are so far removed from my own as to be almost foreign.
Yet, it is this unfamiliarity that makes such novels like The Vanishing Half so important. We don't just learn about the experiences of others. These novels force us out of our comfort zones by challenging us to look at what makes up reality for millions of others. They demand us to directly look at racism and hatred in ways not available to us, and in so doing, requires us to understand their situations. For me, The Vanishing Half did nothing but raise questions I would love to ask but am afraid to do so because it shows my ignorance of the Black experience.
The story's premise is one that follows the lives of twin girls, born and raised in a poor Louisiana town that prides itself on the whiteness of its denizens, even though the town is a Black town. One of the twins disappears one day, having decided to pass herself off as white, forever leaving her family and heritage in the past to prevent her secret from becoming known. The other twin ends up marrying a very dark black man but moves back home when she starts to fear for her life at the hands of her husband. Both sisters have daughters, whose stories we also follow.
The story itself is impeccably written, balancing between establishing the setting without sacrificing character development. We feel all four ladies' shame and fear, their anxiety, and their love. We care for all four women, in spite of their very different lives. Even if we don't agree with some of their decisions, we appreciate their sacrifices and the journies they travel.
But the questions are what will make me remember The Vanishing Half. More than Stella's passing, more than Jude's compassion, I remain haunted by the questions I have because of their experiences. Just the idea of a Black town that is as white in skin tone and hair and eye color as most of the neighborhoods in which I grew up is fascinating to me and makes me ask what actually defines race? According to the novel, it is not necessarily skin color, and yet, isn't that what we are taught? That we base race on skin color? Yet, this town, which is fictional but I'm sure exists somewhere, identifies itself as a Black community, faced with the same laws of segregation and fears of lynching as any other Black community in the South in the 1950s. Does this mean we define race based on identity? Or is it heritage?
Then there is this idea of degrees of blackness, where even Black people favor those with whiter skin. Desiree sees this firsthand in how the community does not accept her husband and later actively prejudices itself against her dark-skinned daughter. Why would a community do this? Do we, as humans, need to feel like we are better than someone else, so much so that we look down on people of our own race
One cannot discuss The Vanishing Half without talking about Stella's passing over. I admit that there is still a part of me that wonders why this is such a big deal. After all, don't we, as parents, want our children to have a better life than the one we had? So, for a Black mother, would that not mean becoming white if possible? I recognize how ignorant this question is because I do understand that Stella's passing over means that she is making a statement about her heritage being less important to her than her own comfort. But Stella doesn't just pass over because she no longer wants to fight against racism and segregation. She does so because she can and because she likes the feelings passing as white gives her. This put my mind down a completely different path, as I wonder how often people passed over in the past. How often does it happen now? Most importantly, why would someone do it? If you do, do you hate yourself, do you hate your family or your heritage, or is it something else?
Stella's behavior toward Blacks as a white woman of privilege also raises eyebrows and questions. Or maybe it doesn't if you are a BIPOC reading it. I just don't know. I do know I struggled to like Stella as a person as she focused only on the inexplicable idea of how being near another Black person would jeopardize her secret, which then allowed her to treat them as bad or worse as anything she experienced as a child. I don't understand it, and I definitely don't like it or her for doing it.
Lastly, I find it very telling that Stella, as a white woman, is the only one of the four women to get married or remain married. Desiree marries someone who abuses her and leaves him fairly quickly in the novel. She finds her long-time love but never makes it official. Jude finds her one love but does not marry him for various reasons. Kennedy never finds the one. What does this say about the institution of marriage among Blacks versus whites? Is there something Ms. Bennett is saying about marriage in Black culture that I don't understand?
The thing is that I most likely will never get satisfactory answers to my questions, and I think that is okay as well. Learning comes through exposure to new ideas and situations and asking questions about them. I may never understand why Stella does what she does or the level of fear and degradation Desiree and Jude feel, but by reading The Vanishing Half I know more than I did before. The questions the novel raises for me will make me seek out other novels written by Black authors or books about race, and I will continue to seek answers and listen to others' experiences. As a white woman, that is the very least I can do.
In a small town of African Americans in Louisiana named Mallard
I read Passing by Nella Larsen last year which covers much of this same territory but it was set in 1929 whereas this book, although it begins in the 1950s, continues on to the 1980s. I really had no idea that passing for white continued for so long. In this time of Black Lives Matter I wonder if there are still people who are hiding their racial identity. In Canada I have witnessed that many more people have acknowledged their indigenous ancestry in the last few decades whereas when I was growing up in the middle of the 20th century it would have been rare for someone who could pass for white to do so. So I hope that the same applies to people with African American heritage in the USA. Racism will never vanish unless people realize that despite colour or ethnicity or religion we are all the same.
Their stories diverged, with Stella living a lie and Desiree remaining loyal to her past. Desiree mourned the loss of her twin and tried to find Stella, but the trail went cold. Stella, on the other hand, appeared to have all the trappings of success and comfort, but this came at the expense of maintaining an elaborate layer of lies. Both women gave birth to daughters, and the novel also explored how each sister’s decisions affected the next generation.
With its thought-provoking premise, The Vanishing Half caught my attention right away. Desiree and Stella’s characters were well developed. Stella’s story in particular was an excellent depiction of the many ways white privilege manifests itself. The transition from mothers to daughters was less effective, as the daughters seemed less real to me, but the ending came full circle and left me feeling quite satisfied with this book.
Brit Bennett’s novel covers the time span from the 1950s when the twins are only teenagers until the end of the 20th century when they have grown-up daughters. It is a tale of two young girls who are connected by their looks but quite different in character, girls with hopes and dreams living in a time when chances in life are determined by the skin colour. One of them accepts things as they are, the other decides to make the best for herself of it, but the price she has to pay is high and it is also a price her daughter will have to pay, ignorant of her mother’s story. Beautifully written the author not only follows the fate of the two individuals, but she also mirrors in their fate a society in which some alleged truths are deeply rooted.
When starting reading, you have the impression of being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow, you are in the middle of the story and first need to sort out the characters and circumstances. The author sticks to the backwards and forwards kind of narration which only little by little reveals what happened to the sisters. Just as both of them are ill-informed about the other’s fate, you as a reader, too, have to put the bits and pieces together to make it a complete story. I totally adored that way of gradually revealing what happened to them.
The narrative also quite convincingly shows that you can never just make a decision for your own life, it will always have an impact on other people, too, and even if you imagine having left all behind you and buried it deep inside your head, one day, the truth will come out and you’ll have to explain yourself. Brit Bennett similarly demonstrates how fragile our concepts of race, gender, class and even identity can be. We might easily be misled because quite often we only see what we want to see and prefer looking away over confronting our stereotypical thinking.
A must read drama with strong characters but also a lot of food for thought.
Identity, decisions, fate and prejudice are the main themes explored within. How is identify formed and what will one do to hang on to the one they have decided to make their own. I loved Desiree, she is loyal, committed, her daughter Jude, dark skinned will have much to overcome. I loved her strength.
Stella, the other twin will live her life behind a heavy secret she carries and her daughter Kennedy will suffer with the fact that she never really knew her mother.
A very well written story, with very defined and different characters. I admit to liking Desiree's and Jude's story the best. I think I could understand their motivation more. Still, four strong women, who make their own way through life despite the obstacles strewn in their path.
As always reading with Angela and Esil, make these reads special. Although we agreed on much, I think we favored different characters.
ARC from Edelweiss.
The premise of The Vanishing Half is an intriguing one. Picture a small settlement in 1950s rural Louisiana populated exclusively by a group of black people who have not only segregated themselves from whites but even from darker-skinned blacks. The blacks in little Mallard, Louisiana, look down upon darker-skinned blacks without any sense of irony in the way they do everything possible to exclude those darker than themselves from Mallard. Certainly, no resident of Mallard would ever consider marrying one of them. And the results are obvious to the eye.
Identical twins, Desiree and Stella Vignes were both so beautiful and so light-skinned that the residents of Mallard couldn’t help but be proud of them. Proud of them, that is, right up until the moment the sixteen-year-olds decide to run away to New Orleans. And then, fourteen years later, when one of the twins suddenly shows up in Mallard – with a little girl, who some swore was so black that she was almost purple, in tow – the townspeople are not at first sure how to react. But react, they do, eventually welcoming Desiree back into the community while treating her daughter as an outcast barely worthy of their attention.
Now, people wonder when Stella will come home. Stella, however, has been passing for white for over a decade, is married to a wealthy white man who has no idea who she really is, and has a daughter of her own. She has no idea that her sister is in Mallard, and she really doesn’t care. Passing herself off as white has not been as easy as she thought it would be, and the pressure is changing Stella into someone she barely recognizes.
The first half of The Vanishing Half, during which Desiree and Stella grow up, run away to New Orleans, and then begin to live their separate lives is the kind of page-turner that I expected from the hype surrounding the book. But the second half of the novel, seen mostly through the eyes of Desiree’s daughter Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, is not all that riveting even as the reader begins to anticipate what will happen when the two girls eventually cross paths – as you know they surely will. That the girls happen to stumble upon each other in Los Angeles and then again in New York is just asking too much of the reader. And the result of those encounters is so predictable that I found myself only reluctantly returning to the novel to see what was going to happen next. I have to believe that if Bennett had not changed points-of-view midway through The Vanishing Half that it would have been a stronger novel – one with more to say about the anxieties of the day of trying to pass for white and how that made the abandoned black relatives feel about themselves and the person who had abandoned them.
Bottom Line: if I were rating The Vanishing Half by awarding the usual stars, I would give the first half of the book five of them, but I would limit the second half to two. Bennett is obviously a talented writer, and a good storyteller, but this one is like reading two separate books, and it left me disappointed that it is not the book it could have been.
Desiree and Stella are identical twins. They're black but
I found Stella the most intriguing of the twins. She is the one who 'passes over' into living as a white woman, keeping the truth from her husband and children. I can understand her desire to do this, after all, who would choose to be persecuted over the colour of their skin if they can choose another way, but at the same time I felt dismayed at the fact that she felt this was the right thing to do, with the loss of her heritage and her past life, her denial, and also her ensuing behaviour.
Jude was my favourite character of all. She is Desiree's daughter and I just found her to be the kindest, most measured of everyone, and her story so captivating and so involving. I was always pleased when the story came back round to her, but I enjoyed reading from all the viewpoints.
The Vanishing Half covers a period of 30-40 years up to the late 1980s and the author does a fantastic job at depicting the attitudes of the times. Her writing is wonderful, evocative and empathetic, filling me with delight and sadness in equal measures.
There are some hard-hitting scenes in this book. It really made me think and for that I'm very grateful. It's a very character-driven book about women - mothers, daughters and sisters, tackling some difficult issues, race actually only being one of them. We follow a family over a fixed period of time, witnessing the impact of their decisions and the ones imposed upon them. It's a triumphant novel and I loved it.
Desiree longs to leave their small town and wants Stella, who would love nothing more that to go to college and become a teacher in their small community, to come with her. Something happens that convinces Stella she must leave, and the girls sneak away.
In 1968, Desiree reluctantly returns back home with her young daughter in tow, but not Stella. Stella left Desiree years ago, moved away and left no forwarding address. When Stella applied for a secretarial job, she was able to pass as a white woman, and when she got the job she continued passing.
Years later Stella is married to a wealthy man and has a daughter. No one knows she is black, and she lives with the fear that one day she will be found out. That day may come when Desiree’s daughter and her daughter meet.
The Vanishing Half is about race, family, identity, and Bennett’s writing is just brilliant. She delves into the fears and dreams of her characters, and again how strong the pull of home is.
Desiree and Stella are twins desperate to get out of their small hometown. They escape to New Orleans starting over until Stella disappears. The sisters' consequent
The writing is beautiful, the story is thought-provoking, and the characters seem real. This is at the top of many best-seller lists and I understand why.
Stella lies to her own family, never telling them she is really a black woman. “Sometimes lying was an act of love. Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now, or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal. Maybe this was who she had become.”
Desiree ends up fleeing an abusive husband and returning to Mallard with her very dark-skinned daughter, Jude. “A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different.”
The twin sisters have to learn to live without each other, never forgetting the other. “Sometimes being a twin felt like living with another version of yourself.”
The book is also told from Stella’s daughter and Deisree’s daughter’s points of view. Even though I was a little disappointed in the ending, overall it was a good book.
This excerpt from the book jacket sums it up perfectly: “The Vanishing Half is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of race, gender and identity, and the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s desires and expectations.”
“That was the problem: you could never love two people the exact same way.”
“To be honest about the past meant that he would be considered a liar.”
“That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone.”
“You know what your problem is? You consider yourself your most fascinating subject.”
“That was the thing about death. Only the specifics of it hurt. Death, in a general sense, was background noise. She stood in the silence of it.”
“Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief is the same.”
“She’d grown up in her mother’s eyes, no longer her daughter but a separate woman, complete with her own secrets.”
Bennett's story of two twins, Desiree and Stella, was indeed a fascinating read. I had never heard the term passing over,( referring to the idea of passing for white), but the tension of the novel certainly become apparent when "Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find."
The story begins with one twin returning home with a child, Jude. "She was black. Blueblack. No, so black she looked purple. Black as coffee, asphalt, outer space, black as the beginning and the end of the world." Desiree leaves her abusive husband returning to the only place she could, home to her mother, Adele. Her return is the talk of the town that has been wondering about the twins since the day they disappeared, years before. The narrative bounces back in forth in time and we as readers get to know a number of interestingly drawn characters. Stella marries a rich man named Blake and through some coincidence her daughter, Kennedy winds up meeting Jude at a party for her father. Ms. Bennett dedicates the remainder of the story to the eventual reunion. She plots it well and creates a page turning quick read. I recommend and will look for this author's earlier works.
Some good lines:
She looked exactly the same as when she’d left at sixteen—still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze.
Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.
Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.
Hours earlier, in the middle of another argument, Sam had grabbed her by the throat and aimed his handgun at her face, his eyes as clear as the first time he’d kissed her.
He smelled like sandalwood and sweat, and as he neared, she thought, for one breathless second, that he might kiss her. But he didn’t. He lifted his fig to her lips. She bit where his mouth had been.
She was black. Blueblack. No, so black she looked purple. Black as coffee, asphalt, outer space, black as the beginning and the end of the world.
She was the type of girl that boys only kissed in secret and, after, pretended that they hadn’t.
Eunice was giving Stella a smile that reminded her of a hunting dog with a rabbit in his teeth. The more you twitched away, the tighter those jaws fastened around you.
He was straining against his white briefs and she felt embarrassed for him, embarrassed for all men, really, forced to wear their desire so openly. She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.
In this novel, which takes place over a little more than three decades, starting in the mid twentieth century, a time of tremendous racial strife and narrow mindedness about other subjects, as well, such as gender and identity, unspoken truths are revealed by the subtle juxtaposition of divergent, developing lives.
After the sisters move away, Stella soon realizes that she can pass for white. She discovers that she is more comfortable in that world, and when people simply assume that she is white, she decides to remain silent and not to correct them. She leaves her sister without a backward glance, leaving no forwarding address. She begins to enjoy the freedom that the white world provides her; she becomes someone else, as an actor does when playing a part. She works on her new image, watching TV endlessly in order to improve her speech patterns and become more authentic, which is also ironic, since she is the same person regardless of the skin she occupies. She appears to seamlessly step into her new role. She begins to travel in different circles, and when she meets Blake Sanders, she plays her part well. Soon they are married. Soon her new life begins in earnest. Her husband is unaware of the fact that she is not white. As she is accepted by the “white privileged” community in which she lives, Blake’s “acceptable” subtle racism is revealed. Stella, too, of necessity, must be a bit of a racist to protect her new identity; when her community shuns the new black family, she does the same. When Stella and Blake have a child, Kennedy, she is a blond and blue-eyed, white baby!
Kennedy is a bit of a rebel and wishes to study acting, ironically playing the roles of different characters, playing a part like her mother. Kennedy really wants to know more about her mother’s past, really wants to forge a deeper, more intimate relationship with her mother, but Stella resists her efforts. She cannot tell her the truth. As she begins to realize her mother is a liar, she must come to terms with her own identity and behavior.
Desiree chooses a different direction. She marries Sam, a really dark-skinned man who turns out to be a toxic male who abuses her. It seems abuse follows her because of her choices. Desiree has a daughter too, Jude, a very dark skinned girl. When she escapes her abusive situation, once again, she returns to her home town, Mallard, where it began, with her child. It is a place that does not welcome Jude with open arms since she does not fit their profile. She suffers from the racism afforded to those who are darker, from her own people and from whites. Rather than succumb to their prejudice, growing angry and frustrated, she works harder to overcome the bigotry and feeds her own ambition to achieve success. In Mallard, Desiree meets Early, somewhat of a bounty hunter, a man who searches for those with alternate identities, those who are escaping from something. He has actually been hired by her husband to find her and bring her back. Instead, he is smitten by her, and they forge a close relationship. He protects her secrets and does not reveal that he has found her. He even attempts to locate Stella.
When Jude grows up, she, too, is determined to find her mother’s twin. By chance, while working her way through school as she studies medicine, she spies her. She is helping out a caterer at a private party, and she spots Stella and her daughter, Kennedy, there. In her shock, she causes quite a scene and loses her job. Soon, she is stalking Kennedy at her acting job, since Jude gets a new job, at the same theater, doing menial tasks. She is working to finance her education. Slowly, as Jude helps the arrogant, entitled Kennedy to dress, and brings her tea, even socializing with her occasionally, somewhat of a lopsided relationship develops. Jude wants to get to know her cousin better, but does not intend to reveal her identity. Her mixed emotions are often overwhelming, and Jude gets comfort from Reese, her “boyfriend”, another person with a confused or alternate identity. So many characters hide their true identity in this novel which prompts the reader to truly think about what identity means. Does it indicate anything about character? Is it merely a cloak one wears in order to live successfully in the imperfect world at large?
As the novel develops, it dramatically exhibits the foolishness and incongruity of racism and homophobia as it exposes several relationships that thrive against all odds. The reader will truly feel enlightened and inspired by the way some of these friendships work out, and possibly also be shamed by others that seem to be based on falsehoods and stereotypical prejudices. Sometimes nefarious reasons for behavior are justified and seem legitimate, again ironically.
Stereotypes, however, are defied. Chauvinism, racism, sexism, homophobia, identity and many other controversial subjects are revealed subtly, through the behavior of the characters.
The very upright Blake is a racist and a chauvinist. He is not what he seems to be at first glance either. Early is a caring man, although his chosen profession would seem to indicate otherwise. Reese is a “cowboy” or is he? Is anyone’s persona real, or are we all playing a part? The twins and their daughters defy stereotypes. The people they interact with do as well, although some reinforce the very ideas of the stereotypes they seem to fight.Toxic males exist across all racial divides, as do various sexual preferences. Racism is presented as both subtle and overt, proving its existence everywhere.
How we choose to live our lives is a major theme. Identity and irony are front and center. As Jude dissects the human body, she realizes that in death, the person is a shell, without purpose. In life, however, there is always possibility. Kennedy soon begins to realize that although she has had the privileged life, she is not as fulfilled or as content as her cousin Jude who has had to struggle in so many different ways to achieve her goals. Desiree comes to a point where she is able to finally separate from her twin. Twins often suffer from separation anxiety. The identity of each twin can sometimes grow blurred. Stella realizes that her choices have made her former self unrecognizable. She is at a point of no return. Who are we really? What are our dreams? How do we attain them?
Are secrets and lies sometimes necessary? Do we all wear several masks? In this time of a pandemic, masks have become a staple feature in our lives. Before this time, have we all been hiding behind our own imaginary masks? Will our true identities ever be revealed? Will it be at our own peril? Will it bring shame or honor to us? Prejudice in its various forms is alive and well. This book will make the reader think about its place in their own lives!
The narrator did not delineate the voices of the characters clearly, and so the identity of the characters was not always obvious, which is ironic in a book that clearly concerns itself with identity! However, in print or on audio, this book is a great book club selection. It will inspire much discussion, and hopefully, much enlightenment.
The Vanishing Half is a book that must be discussed.
The Rest of It:
Stella and Desiree are twins, living in the small (fictional) town of Mallard, Louisiana. This town is known for its black, light-skinned inhabitants. As young children, they witness the murder of their father by a
At first, they do this together. Taking odd jobs, sleeping on floors and eventually making a place of their own to call home. But Stella wants more and eventually leaves Desiree behind to pursue what she feels is a better life. A life that should not be held from her, just because she’s black. Desiree is hurt by the abandonment but at the time, doesn’t fully understand Stella’s choices. All she wants throughout the years is to find her sister once again.
This story is told in several parts and jumps into the present day as we meet Jude and Kennedy, the children of Desiree and Stella. We also meet their significant others and as readers, we are brought into Stella’s world as she makes the decision to pass for white. One day, Stella is mistaken for white and just goes along with it. The concept of “passing” is one that affects more than just Stella as the story unfolds.
The Vanishing Half is a story about identity. Racial identity as well as gender identity (one of the characters, one of my favorite characters is transgendered). These characters are trying to find their way and their true selves and not without a lot of struggle. Some of Stella’s choices will anger you but Bennett wrote her in such a way, that you can’t hold her choices against her. She feels regret for her decisions but as readers we also see why she made these decisions to begin with.
I really liked how the story was structured and how balanced it was. I appreciated the decision to move the characters to California, particularly Los Angeles because as I can tell you, Los Angeles is accepting of a lot and it’s a place where people find themselves all the time. People can be whatever they want here, so having some of the story set in Los Angeles made sense. I really enjoyed the writing and I was lucky enough to be told about the Los Angeles Times Book Club interview with Bennett right after finishing the book so I got to hear her take on the book and it was just a great talk.
I highly recommend The Vanishing Half. Now, I really want to read her first book, The Mothers.
For more reviews, visit my blog: Book Chatter.
The question of whether the sisters reunite, and whether Stella, who passes, ever reveals the truth about her background to her husband and daughter pulls the reader through the novel. Stella and Desirée, her twin, and their daughters, one raised in the Jim Crow south, and the other in a life of privilege in Los Angeles, are characters that will not soon be forgotton. Not everyone will love this book (although there's a lot to love), but everyone will come away from it asking questions about race and identity and how the two intersect.