The Vanishing Half: A review by Shanzay Basharat

The Vanishing Half is a historical fiction novel by American author Brit Bennett. Her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times best-seller.. Vanishing half is her second novel and was published by Riverhead Books in 2020. The novel debuted at number one on The New York Times fiction best-seller list. The Vanishing Half, more than lives up to expectations in comparison to her early book. It’s an even better book, more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling.

The Vanishing Half, is divided into six sections, each of which contain numbered chapters. The novel was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. The interpretation of the title is Stella, half of the twins vanished. A piece of Stella vanished when she chose to pass as white. Nearly every character the novel has an aspect of his or her identity that they suppress or hide or want to step out of at times.

The Vanishing Half is a multi-generational, multi-geographic novel that moves fluidly between the past and the present, from the 1950s to the late 1990s, and from the small, light-skinned-obsessed town of Mallard to New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis. The Vanishing Half follows the lives of two twin girls, both light-skinned Black girls, who run away from home at the age of sixteen. Desiree marries a dark-skinned Black man and has a child, while Stella lives her life passing as white. The book tracks their lives across generations, as their lives branch away from each other and yet remain intertwined. It’s a story that explores the intricacies of identity, family and race in a provocative but compassionate way. These chapters are comprised of smaller fragmented divisions. The novel’s structure allows the author to move back and forth in time and space.

In Part I (1968), Stella and Desiree Vignes are twins from Mallard, Louisiana, a town full of light-skinned Black people, who run away from home at 16. Desiree always wanted to leave, but Stella isn’t motivated to run away until they are pulled out of high school to work as cleaners. Desiree marries a dark-skinned man (Sam) and has a daughter, Jude. Meanwhile, Stella got a job as secretary while passing as white. However, one day she left, leaving only a note. Now, 14 years later in 1968, Desiree has returned home with her daughter to escape Sam’s abuse. Early Jones makes a living tracking people down and bounty hunting. He’s offered a job (from Sam) to find Desiree. He accepts because he recognizes Desiree from when they were teenagers. Upon seeing her bruises, he lies to Sam and says he can’t find her. Desiree also tells Early about Stella, and Early offers to find her. Together, they track Stella’s location to Boston. In Part II (1978), Jude is now in college at UCLA. As a dark-skinned girl who grew up with only light-skinned Black people, she has been bullied and excluded her whole life. She meets and falls for Reese, a southern boy who is transgendered. Reese wants to get surgery for his chest, so Jude gets a higher-paying catering job to help save money. One night at work, she sees a woman (Stella) and the shock makes her drop a bottle of wine.

In Part III (1968), we learn that Stella had married her boss, Blake Sanders, and they had moved away. They are wealthy and have a blond-haired, violet-eyed daughter, Kennedy. There is a Black family (Reginald and Loretta Walker, with their daughter Cindy) moving into their neighborhood, to everyone’s displeasure. Stella befriends Loretta, but tries to hide it from others. One day, Loretta cuts off their friendship after Kennedy calls Cindy the n-word. Meanwhile, the Walkers are harassed and soon move away. In Part IV (1982), Jude is now working while applying to medical school. She attends a friend’s show where she meets Kennedy, recognizing her as the violet-eyed girl who was with the woman she that looked like her mother. Kennedy is pursuing an acting career, and she confirms that it was Stella. Stella is now working as an adjunct professor. She was depressed after the Walkers left and ended up going back to school. Jude and Kennedy get to know each other, but when Kennedy drunkenly insults Jude, Jude angrily tells her the truth about Stella and Mallard.

In Part V (1985), Kennedy and Jude end up meeting again in New York. Jude and Reese are there for Reese’s surgery. Jude gives Kennedy a photo of their mothers. Kennedy ends up confronting Stella with the photo, but Stella lies, to Kennedy’s frustration. Stella has always been secretive, but now Kennedy knows her mother has been lying to her. Kennedy moves to Europe. In Part VI (1986), Stella goes home in order to ask Desiree to tell Jude to leave Kennedy alone. Stella has not seen her daughter since the incident with the photograph. At home, Stella learns that their mother Adele now has Alzheimer’s. On seeing Desiree again, Stella asks for forgiveness. They hug and they catch up, but then Stella sneaks out at night to leave and return to her life. Stella also gives Early her wedding ring to sell off for money to help with Adele’s care. Soon after, Kennedy finally decides to move home. When Kennedy asks about the ring, Stella is happy she’s back and tired of lying and finally tells her the full truth. However, Stella asks Kennedy not to tell her father (Stella’s not planning on changing her life). Adele passes away, and Jude and Reese go home to attend the funeral. Jude is still in touch with Kennedy and lets her know, though their mothers do not know they speak. Desiree and Early move to Houston.

Lastly, this story covers so much ground, both in terms of the strands of the twins’ and their daughters’ narratives, as well as its exploration of race, gender, identity, and belonging. The writing is beautiful and poignant, flowing smoothly along while guiding the reader from one insightful observation to another. I really enjoyed reading this book. A very interesting story about identity and the choices we make to live our lives. I read it very quickly as it was easy to get lost in the narrative. The book follows different people of the story through different times of their lives but at the heart are the twin sisters and how they both make different lives for themselves. It’s a book about race and identity – there are various examples of how the characters choose certain pathways that takes them away from family and where they come from but still always circle back to their roots.
I’d highly recommend this book. It is beautifully written where the book just flows and never misses a beat. I was sad when I got to the end as I enjoyed it so much.

Share this story