"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"--
In a small town of African Americans in Louisiana named Mallard the residents are known for the lightness of their skin. Each successive generation has tried to marry so they would produce children with a lighter skin colour than the parents. Twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are a shining example of that selective breeding. When their mother pulls them out of school early because as a single mother she needs income they can earn Desiree isn't too upset because she is not a very good student but Stella had been hoping to go to college. At the end of the summer when they are 16 they decide to run away to New Orleans. Stella soon learns that she can pass as white and she gets a job in the marketing department of a tony department store. Her white boss starts paying attention to her and when he takes a job back in his home of Boston he asks Stella to come with him and marry him. She agrees to do so but does not tell Desiree she is leaving, nor does she have any contact with Desiree or her mother again. Desiree leaves New Orleans to go to Washington DC where she gets a job as a fingerprint analyst in the FBI. She is courted by and then marries a lawyer who is about as dark as she is light. Their daughter, Jude, is very dark skinned. When Desiree leaves her abusive husband and returns to Mallard Jude sticks out against all those light-skinned children. Her intelligence and athletic ability don't win her any friends so she is more than happy to take a scholarship to a university in California. She does have friends there. Reese is a transgender male who has not been able to afford any surgery or hormone treatments. That does not prove to be an impediment in he and Jude falling deeply in love. Then one night while Jude is working at a catering job she sees Stella walking into the party. She knows it must be Stella because she looks just like Desiree. Earlier in the evening she had been talking to a girl about her own age who mentioned her mother was late even though the party was to honour her father. Jude realizes that this girl, an actress named Kennedy, is her cousin. Through Kennedy Jude learns more about her aunt but she never tells her mother that she has found her. Stella is so worried that Jude will out her that she returns to Mallard for the first time since she left at 16 to try to get Desiree to talk Jude into dropping her involvement with Kennedy.
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.
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.
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.
Desiree and Stella are identical twins. They're black but their skin is so light that they can pass for white, and they live in a village in America in the 1950s which prides themselves on this fact, that their whole community can pass for being white. This in itself brings about so many mixed feelings for me. When the girls escape their small town life they go on completely different journeys, and later their own daughters' lives diverge still further.
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.
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.
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.”
This book was our book group's August read, during a time when racial inequality is high on the agenda. I am certainly glad that it was a book I had the opportunity to discuss in a book group setting; the discussion was fascinating. There are so many books around that I highly doubt I will read it again, but so many things reemerged during our discussion that I do think a re-read of this book would be fascinating.
Desire and Stella are pale skinned twins, born in Mallard, US. This small town was originally populated by freed slaves, many of whom were offspring of the bosses, so it became a place where folk were neither white, nor dark. At the age of sixteen, the twins leave home and we follow their lives as they both eventually have daughters and various relationships. After running away together, one twin runs again and they live separate lives, one as a black woman, her sister 'passing over' into life as a white woman. With all the racism in the world, this would sound like a perfect move, but it is a life of lies and charade and it is questionable whether she is happier than her sister.
There is so much content in this book. Not only does it discuss racism in its obvious sense, but it also covers other forms of living a fiction, everything expertly interwoven into a narrative that kept my attention throughout.
I was listening to the audio version, excellently read by Shayna Small.
It is a book that well deserves its inclusion in the Sunday Times Bestseller list and I highly recommend it.
Like Brit Bennett's previous book, The Mothers, this novel should lend itself very well to discussion. There's a lot going on behind the scenes here, and with racial tension as high today as it was in the 60's when this book begins, there's lots to dissect and think about. I really enjoy this author's writing style as well, and this novel kept me interested all the way through until.....the end. I was a little let down with the ending. It felt very anti-climactic to me, and I wanted more. So maybe some lost potential there. But overall, still very enjoyable and discussion-worthy.
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 choices greatly impact their own lives and the lives of those they love. This is a multi-generational novel that stretches from Louisiana to Los Angeles, New York City and many places in between over decades.
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.