Book Review

The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

  • Author: Brit Bennett
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: June 2, 2020
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books

CONTENT WARNING: domestic violence, racism, murder, bullying, violence, sexual assault, racial slurs, transphobia, death, grief

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Twins, inseparable as children, ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds; one black and one white.

The Vignes 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, including their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. Across the country, the other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, although separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, 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.

This was part of my 12 challenge, and I have to admit that my friend recommendations are seriously outstanding this year. I’ve had this book on my TBR for so long, and now that I got the push to read it, i’m so glad that I did. The Vanishing Half is the kind of book that will haunt my thoughts for a long time.

It starts out telling the story of twin girls, Stella and Desiree, who grow up in a southern town full of Black people who are light-skinned and value this trait above all else. It’s a tiny little town, not found on any maps, but the residents are well aware of racism and aren’t immune to its effects. So when these young women decide to make their escape, neither of them was planning or expecting the outcome either of them had.

The connection between Stella and Desiree was intriguing all the way through the book. Initially, they were close but always had such different personalities. It’s clear from the very beginning that while the two look alike, they’re easy to differentiate early on, and it’s almost as if they complement each other, filling in the gaps for the other person:

“Maybe she was only quiet because Desiree was not. Maybe they’d spent their lives together modulating each other, making up for what the other lacked.”

Once they left that town obsessed with skin color, each sister diverged towards a polar opposite. One sister left and started a career, falling in love with the darkest-skinned man that she could find, only returning with her dark-skinned daughter after experiencing domestic violence. The other left and passed for white, starting a new life across the country.

“Sometimes who you were came down to the small things.”

But this story was more than just the tale of two sisters, separated and living their own very different lives. It’s also the way that the lives that they lived and the choices they made and the lies that they told affected the lives of their own daughters. And I think that I liked reading about the lives of the daughters even more than the lives of the mothers, not because it was easy, but because it was so complex.

“She’d always known that it was possible to be two different people in one lifetime, or maybe it was only possible for some. Maybe others were just stuck with who they were.”

These girls live their lives defined by the decisions their mothers have made, the lies they were told, and their own early experiences. For Jude, her earliest memories involve seeing her mother being beaten by her father, a man who only showed love to her. A man who she resembles, while she looks nothing like her light-skinned mother. Her mother’s decision to return to Mallard means she is the only dark-skinned person in a town that is fixated on being light-skinned, rendering her as an outcast, and subjecting her to bullying and a constant feeling of ugliness and “otherness.” It also instills a sense of curiosity about the aunt she never knew but heard of, and was aware that her own mother was searching for.

For her cousin, it’s a sense of entitlement, growing up affluent and white, knowing nothing about the fact that she is biracial. It’s seeing her own mother behave in racist ways, out of a fear of being discovered as Black, and losing everything she had worked so hard to gain. Everything her mother has walked away from, without anyone around her even knowing about. She is living a lie, and she can’t talk to anyone about it.

“[Redacted] 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.”

I especially loved the way that Jude is involved in a relationship with Reese, a transgender man, who has become someone that feels more true to who he really is, as opposed to Jude’s aunt, who has hidden who she really is, in order to gain a sense of privilege in a world that has worked to oppress her. I enjoyed seeing their relationship grown and change over the course of the story, as they got to know each other and became more comfortable opening up about themselves, understanding that the other person would accept who they are. 

The only thing I didn’t love about the story was the ending. I flipped the page back and forth, since it almost felt unfinished. I was hoping for a bit more resolution with one of the plot lines, but I guess it rings true with the theme of the story, although I was honestly wishing that things would have tied up more neatly, despite the fact that this story did feel more true to life in a lot of ways than most books I read and life rarely ties up all the loose ends in a pretty bow. However, this was very nearly one of the most perfect books I’ve read in a long time, and I’m definitely going to be checking out The Mothers sooner rather than later, as well as keeping my eye out for any more books from Brit Bennet.

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