The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction, women's fiction
Content warning: offensive language, brief depictions of violence
The Vanishing Half (2020, 352 pages), the second novel from American novelist Brit Bennett, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and is long listed for the National Book Club Award. Narrated in the third person, the novel spans a period of two decades (1968-1988) and follows two generations of the Vignes family, identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes and their daughters Kennedy and Jude. After running away at sixteen years old from Mallard, the small Louisiana town where they were raised, Stella and Desiree try to make it on their own in New Orleans. Barely scraping by in New Orleans, Stella applies for a job as a secretary at an upscale department store – a position that is reserved only for white women. Taking advantage of her “creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair” – Stella does not mention that she is, in fact, Black and lands the job: “Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned that she was colored”. But after getting this glimpse into what her life could be like if she was white, Stella decides to shed her Black identity, leaving her twin sister behind: “Sorry honey, but I’ve got to go my own way”.
The novel begins in 1968 with Desiree returning to Mallard with her daughter Jude, after fleeing her abusive husband in Washington D.C. Desiree’s return to Mallard is shocking not because it is the unceremonious return of the prodigal daughter, but because Desiree’s daughter Jude is “Blueblack…like she flown direct from Africa”. Mallard, you see, is an exclusive town for light-skinned Black people. Reminiscent of Blue Vein Societies that popped up around the country at the end of the American Civil War, Mallard is a town founded by the twins’ great-great-great grandfather, an enslaved man who was freed by his white father, and who wanted to create a town for people like him: “[People] who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” We are told that “in Mallard, nobody married dark” and over time the town’s population became lighter and lighter “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream”. Desiree, however, rejects Mallard’s obsession with lightness and married “the darkest man she could find”, knowing that light skin did not protect her family from horrific and unprovoked racially motivated violence, nor did it protect them from grinding poverty.
Stella and Desiree left Mallard after witnessing their father’s lynching by white men and after one of the twins was sexually assaulted by their white employer. When the girls arrive in New Orleans, they have to rely on the kindness of another Mallard transplant before they are able to eke out a meagre existence – living hand to mouth in a run-down apartment. But after Stella gets fired from her job at a laundromat, she decides to go to the white side of town in search of a job. After being turned down for jobs after employers see that she checked the “colored” box on the application, Stella decides not to divulge that information when she goes to interview for a secretarial position at a department store: “There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did.” After getting the job, Stella becomes torn between two worlds, as she rides to the office each morning, she transforms into “Miss Vignes” or “White Stella” as Desiree teases, and every night on the ride back to the colored part of town, Stella transitions back to Black Stella. But eventually this double life takes a toll on Stella and she realizes that “Desiree could never meet Miss Vignes. Stella could only be her when Desiree was not around”.
The remainder of the novel follows the twin sisters’ divergent paths. Stella lives as a white woman in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles with her Yale-educated white husband and their blonde haired, blue eyed daughter Kennedy. And Desiree, who after returning to Mallard with Jude, works as a waitress in the local diner and forms a long-term relationship with a bounty-hunter and drifter named Early. The novel also follows the lives of Kennedy and Jude, the second generation of the Vignes’ story. While attending college at UCLA on a track scholarship, Jude meets Kennedy at a party that Jude is catering. Later, when Stella arrives at the party, Jude recognizes Stella as her mother’s long-lost twin, but Jude decides to keep her identity a secret and instead, tries to develop a relationship with Kennedy. The novel then falls into intrigue as the reader attempts to guess whether Stella will be able to keep her secret from her daughter and husband.
In her review in the New Yorker, Sarah Resnick sums up the two main questions of The Vanishing Half: “Is identity something you take on, or something you take apart? Something you erect, or something you expose?” In the novel, Bennett explores the role of skin color, race and gender in defining who we are internally and who we present to others. One of Bennett’s many accomplishments in The Vanishing Half is how she is able to explore these topics without coming across as “preachy”, as one book club member put it. Bennett maintains neutrality throughout the novel and avoids making value judgments on characters’ actions and behavior, even when they deserve it, like Stella. Even more impressive is that Bennett tackles racism and sexism in the Jim Crow South without triggering people of color, for instance, with the notable exception of the murder of the twin’s father, the novel is never explicit in its discussion of the brutal and sadistic violence that Black people had to endure. It is a testament to Bennett’s excellent writing that she is able to address these topics without me having to psyche myself up to read a chapter or take a nap afterward because I am so emotionally exhausted from the second-hand trauma.
Parul Seghal, in her excellent review in the New York Times, says “no nation can lay lasting claim to a genre, save perhaps one. The story of racial passing is a uniquely and intensely American form.” The “tragic mulatto” trope has a long history in American literature dating back to the early twentieth century and has been used by both black and white and male and female authors including Nella Larsen’s Passing, James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Charles W. Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars and Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life. Resnick explains the generic plot arc of the “tragic mulatto” trope is that of a light-skinned Black person, usually a woman, who “chooses to leave home and pass for white; in time, anguished by the betrayal of her black identity, she returns to her family, only to be met with a harsh fate – sometimes death”. In contrast, Bennett provides a “fresh, surprising story” that addresses the same issues concerning the social and economic privileges/advantages of “whiteness” in America (and the concomitant disadvantages of “Blackness”) without the novel devolving into a cautionary tale of what happens to Black people who deny their heritage.
In The Vanishing Half, Bennett focuses on the internal turmoil that Stella endures, leading the reader to wonder whether becoming white was worth everything Stella had to sacrifice, including her relationship with her identical twin sister. The intertwining lives of Kennedy and Jude provides some answers to this question. Kennedy is a rich spoiled brat, who drops out of college and tries (unsuccessfully) to become a Broadway star because she is convinced that acting is “the only thing she was good at”. Resnick surmises that Kennedy turns to acting because she feels like she has never truly known her mother, or is known by her, and "rather than contend with her mother’s mysteries, Kennedy avoids them, opting to inhabit a succession of ready-made lives". In contrast, Jude is a smart, hardworking, scholarship student, who works menial jobs to get through college and eventually goes to medical school. And although Jude relationship with Desiree is sometimes strained, Desiree (unlike Stella) is proud of her daughter and Jude has a network of close friends and is able to maintain a stable, fulfilling romantic relationship, unlike Kennedy.
I love books that feature interesting, well-defined female characters and The Vanishing Half does not disappoint. Most interestingly is the fact that Jude and Kennedy are a mix of both Stella and Desiree’s personalities. For example, Jude is quiet, reserved and studious, like Stella whereas Kennedy is outspoken and enjoys the theatre, like Desiree. The inter-generational duality among these four women adds another layer of depth to the novel and shows that although Stella has vanished from her twin sister’s life, each sister continues to affect the other’s life in unexpected ways. But by far Stella is the most interesting, and infuriating, character in the book. In her efforts to keep her identity a secret, Stella manages to push everyone away, from Loretta, the Black neighbor who Stella befriends but later turns on, to Kennedy, with whom she has a strained relationship and, even her husband, Blake: “He didn’t mind her secrets. He would lean them in good time. But years had passed and she was as inscrutable as ever.” Even more irritating is how easily Stella steps into the role of racist when around other Black people in an effort to distance herself from her own Blackness, for instance, when Kennedy starts dating and moves in with her Black boyfriend Franz, Stella says that Franz, who has a Ph.D. from Dartmouth, is “uppity” (GRR!!!).
Another example of how seriously Stella has taken on the role of racist is after her fallout with Loretta, the only friend she ever made since becoming “white”, Stella tells the other white women in the neighborhood that she felt “uncomfortable” around Loretta’s Black husband, Reginald. However, there are times when I felt a tinge of sadness for Stella, for example, the times when she and her husband were intimate and she had flashbacks of other white men from her childhood: “Sometimes when he [Blake] touched her, she saw the man who’d dragged her father onto the porch, the one with the red-gold hair…Blake pressed open her thighs and the man with the red-gold hair was on top of her [and] she could almost smell his sweat, see the freckles on his back”. Another time I felt sad for Stella was when she heard the news that Dr. King had been assassinated and she had to deal with the his death on her own, silently crying in the bathroom at the incalculable loss.
Reese, Jude's transgender boyfriend, is another fascinating character and example of the novel’s play on dual identities. Reese’s story closely mirrors Stella’s, Reese was born Therese in a small town in Arkansas and ran away from home to a big city, Los Angeles, after his father caught him in men’s clothes kissing a girl. By the time Reese meets Jude, “no one could tell that he’d ever been her [Therese], and sometimes, he could hardly believe it either”. But the parallels between Stella and Reese are superficial, because for Reese becoming a man was simply making his outward appearance match his inner identity and those closest to him like Jude knew his history. In contrast, Stella was always trying to make her outward physical appearance match her inner identity, for instance, the fact that she never made friends with any of the other white women in her neighborhood but quickly befriends Loretta when she moves into the neighborhood.
There is very little to say in terms of critiques of The Vanishing Half, one criticism that I share with other reviewers is the farfetched coincidences that cause Jude and Kennedy to cross each other’s paths throughout their lives. Incredulously, the cousins meet each other by accident at a party, then later at a play that received a modicum of praise in a rundown theatre and then again halfway across the country in New York City. Another critique I had was the ending, which felt very anti-climactic because it left many questions unanswered. But as one book club member pointed out, that is how life is, it is rarely ever summed up cleanly and with a bow.
Readers who enjoy movies such Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman or Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You – two fantastic films that also put a contemporary spin on the racial passing narrative – will enjoy The Vanishing Half. Parul Sehgal also recommends Nell Zink’s Mislaid, a novel about a white woman who tries to pass as an African American woman in the 1960s. Although literary interest in the “tragic mulatto” trope has declined since the end of Jim Crow, real-life stories of racial passing such as Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal, show that public fascination with racial identity and its intersection with privilege has never disappeared from the American consciousness. The Vanishing Half is a timely reminder of how utterly ridiculous the idea of race, and yes, even gender (not to be confused with biological sex) are and how much needless suffering is caused by these socially constructed categories that have zero biological or scientific basis.
I give The Vanishing Half 4.5 out of 5 stars because although I was disappointed by the novel’s ending, I think it is a wonderful novel and one of the few examples of a novel that jumps around in time but still works without confusing the reader or losing the plot’s momentum. The Vanishing Half is a fantastic, multilayered, conceptually deep novel by a young novelist, whose career I will follow with great interest.