Brit Bennett’s novel, The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin girls, Stella and Desiree, who grow up in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana – a town that prides itself on the lightness of their black residents’ skin. The girls have a rough start; after their father is lynched, their mother takes in the laundry of white folks living nearby, but the girls have other ambitions. Stella has an aptitude for math and sees college as her way out of Mallard. Desiree dreams of becoming an actress and tries to talk Stella into running away. When the girls finish eighth grade, their mother decides they’ve had enough schooling and gets them jobs as housekeepers for wealthy white families. Desiree is the dreamer; Stella is the practical twin. She initially resists Desiree’s runaway dream, but after she’s assaulted by the man she’s working for, she’s ready to leave Mallard behind forever. Desiree and Stella leave in the middle of the night and depend on the kindness of friends until they can get their own small apartment. Work is hard to come by and money is tight. Stella applies for a job as a secretary and realizes that as black woman, she likely won’t get the job, so she makes a decision that will alter the course of her life and the lives of her family. She passes as white and gets the job, eventually leaving Desiree behind to start a new life as a white woman married to her white boss. Stella and her husband move to Los Angeles and have a child, Kennedy, and live a privileged life in a wealthy gated community. Desiree is devastated. She has no idea where Stella is and why she’s left. Desiree marries a black man as dark as she can find and has a child, Jude. After a brutal beating, with bruises on her neck, Desiree leaves him and returns to Mallard. Desiree returns to her roots, caretaking her mother in her old age.
The novel spans twenty years and the repercussions of Stella’s decision vibrate over two generations. The twin’s daughters, Jude and Kennedy in some ways reflect the opposite twin mother. Stella’s daughter, Kennedy is an actress, blond and blue eyed and Desiree’s daughter, Jude, smart and a gifted athlete, but so dark she’s shunned growing up in Mallard, gets a college scholarship. Jude’s boyfriend Reese is transitioning from female to male and Kennedy finds it difficult to stay in a relationship longer than a season. The girls would never be mistaken for cousins.
But secrets have a way of working their way to the surface.
The choices Stella and Desiree make, and the outcomes of those choices, reveal the ugly inventions of race and sex and class in America. Hobbled by those definitions, Bennett’s characters push and pull against them. Stella sacrifices family and true connection for a false identity. Desiree surrenders to her identity and sacrifices her dreams.
The Vanishing Half is a novel about identity and self-acceptance. It’s a novel about learning to love who we are and not weighting the value and judgments of others. The Vanishing Half addresses the harsh realities of living as other in America, the consequences of colorism, and price of generational trauma.
Britt Bennett moves things along through flashbacks and jumps in time, but her characters stay true to her original intentions and she has a keen sense of how trauma effects subsequent generations. Her characters are complex and her plot as it pushes forward through time, makes for interesting book club conversations about individual choices that reverberate throughout generations. It’s easy to judge other people’s motivations, but Bennett is fair, she weights the options each of her characters are presented with, and I found myself sympathizing with both twins.
I recommend The Vanishing Half for fans of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.