Brit Bennett’s second novel, “The Vanishing Half,” details the story of two twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, and the divergent paths their lives follow once they run away from their hometown of Mallard, Louisiana at age 16. While one twin returns to Mallard and becomes a fixture of the community, the other forges a surprising new life far from home. The resulting novel is a multigenerational saga about identity, family, and performance. —Caroline Tsai
If I were to pin down the literary forebears of “The Vanishing Half,” I’d point first to Nella Larsen’s 1928 “Passing” (severely under-read!) and then to a previous book club pick, Toni Morrison’s “Sula.” Both novels follow a pair of very different women, inexplicably connected by a sororal bond, cast apart by the sands of time and the trials of racism. Indeed, like these predecessors, Bennett’s novel parses the determinacy of race and family as much as it allows for the caprices of free choice and the individual spirit. (Slight spoilers ahead!) Desiree, who returns home after her marriage turns abusive, raises a dark-skinned daughter, Jude, among the light-skinned populace of Mallard; meanwhile, Stella carves a new life for herself as a white-passing woman (the novel’s most overt comparison to Larsen’s “Passing”), living in wealth with a white husband and child in Los Angeles, the nation’s capital of performance and self-improvement. Though the sisters’ lives diverge in material ways, they are connected by innumerable forces—the unexpected convergences of their children, the visceral void of each other’s absence, and the magnetic pull, even while dormant, of their inimitable bond.
Yet “The Vanishing Half” isn’t just Desiree and Stella’s story—it’s an ever-evolving, ever-expanding portrait of 20th century America and its complicated nexuses of racial bias and performance. “The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same,” Desiree reflects, during the twins’ first job. Performance and its many embodiments can be empowering, as in the case of Jude’s boyfriend Reese, who finds the courage and freedom to transition genders; but it can also be stifling, as it is for Stella, performing another racial identity in order to belong, with the constant fear of being outed as other. “The vanishing half” is not only the loss of another person, but also the dissolution of a part of the self, whether gendered or raced. For Stella, performance is futile; real life always has a way of catching up and showing its face. The consequences of her performance are multigenerational—it is the reason that her daughter Kennedy, blonde and privileged and whose name invokes the closest white America has come to royalty, grows up in a Brentwood estate, while Desiree’s daughter Jude scrapes a living by waiting on families like her cousin’s.
That each of their daughters essentially assumes the personality of the other twin only adds to the irony—that despite distancing from each other, each woman raises a new generation of her own sister. Bennett, attuned to every nuance of these ironies, develops her characters with immense precision, dipping beneath facades to examine the personal as well as the political. By the end of the novel, which spans decades in its scope yet which I consumed in one eager sitting, I had the sense that I knew these characters intimately, the inherited tragedies and self-discovered pleasures that define their lives. It is a feat of consciousness, which is to say, of intimacy.
As the daughter of a Jamaican-American, I’ve tended to think of colourism largely in the context of the West Indies. “The Vanishing Half” discusses this issue at length in the US. It takes a thorough psychological dive into what it means to be white passing. In that respect, I related to Bennett’s work and I think she handled the topic with incredible sensitivity, really capturing the nuances of this complex subject.
More often than not, people ask me “What are you?” a question I loathe answering just because I always feel the need to lay out what I think is a long explanation. I realize that I don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I guess like Desiree/Stella I have this bizarre feeling that if I don’t explain, I’d be hiding something about myself. I fret about this more than I need to and simply end up telling people I’m from Singapore. I’ve grown used to the assumptions that people can make about being mixed-race or the sometimes racially charged statements they can make, so it was almost soothing to find this experience so clearly laid out in this book. Of course, I’ve always found comfort from representations of myself in literature. It was fascinating to me that it could be the heart of this novel, since I’ve never read many books about passing, or if I have they simply skirt around the topic.
In “The Vanishing Half,” whiteness isn’t just a skin color, but an actual mindset that you have to adopt, that Stella has to project onto herself—almost like she’s switching on a receptor in her brain. I’m interested in theatrical theory, and I liked Bennett’s conception of presenting yourself as white as a kind of role-playing. Though a movie like “Sorry to Bother You” explores this, I found that this framing device particularly inventive. On top of that, setting the novel (partly) in LA added to the symbolism. With the POV from the various women, you really get a deep look into this performance and the “lines” that the characters have to learn.
I loved that this was a multi-generational novel in which you could easily trace the way that different character’s personalities and insecurities got passed down—it all the more underscores the novel’s major ironies. This speaks to the “The Vanishing Half”’s overall perfect structure. Each character had an equal share of the narrative, so I wasn’t left wanting more of one twin or of one daughter. I found Jude’s narrative most compelling of all, particularly her freeing venture into the LA Ball scene and her incredibly heartwarming relationship with Reese—by now, you should all know I love a beautiful love story in a tragic book! This goes to show that Bennett is careful not to let her story exist in a vacuum; historical context – the AIDs crisis, trans-rights, major assassinations of this period — are just below the surface of the larger plot, which is something I always appreciate in contemporary fiction.
To conclude, I just wanted to say what a fantastic writer Bennett is. Caroline Tsai pointed this line out to us about LA (since we’ve all spent time interning there): “Her daughter turned away, glancing out the window. They weren’t far from home but this was Los Angeles. You could cover a lifetime in eleven miles.” How utterly gorgeous, poetic, and true! I keep coming back to this and several other lines. When I was 13, I tried and failed to write a novel about a Creole family in New Orleans. If only I had written something like this! Bennett is a star.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about a book that so excellently hits the mark. In my experience as a book reviewer, the easiest reviews to write are three stars: clearly defined pros and cons. “The Vanishing Half” is no three star read, however. It’s a novel that has earned its claim as one of the hottest books of the summer. From start to finish it’s a triumph, and it’s a little intimidating to write about it because I hope I can do it justice.
“The Vanishing Half” is about race, but it approaches Blackness in America from an angle not often explored in mainstream literature. By writing a story about a Black character who suddenly decides to live the rest of her life as white, Bennett brings up a lot of interesting questions that I’m not sure we have the answers for. On the one hand, what does it even mean to be “white”? Is it about looks or ancestry or something else? Going down this road and watching Stella easily pass as white for her entire adult life makes it seem like race is a social construct. But if it’s not real, why is Stella so ruined by her “lie”? This book has made me think a lot about what race can (or should) mean, and I don’t know that I have come to any conclusions. All I know is that identity is a complicated issue and there are no simple answers.
I also love that this book is the exact opposite of a one-note novel. Of course it deals heavily with race, but it also explores themes of love, family, growing up, and queer identity. Bennett empathetically writes a love story between Jude and her transgender boyfriend trying to make their way in LA with barely any money but a lot of good friends. While a lot of the book does try to think critically about what it means to be white or black, it is so refreshing to see Jude and Reese work their way through life as young adults. Their story line added heart to a novel that was already sure to stick with me for ages.
I’ll leave you with this: The hype for “The Vanishing Half” is completely justified. I am imploring you to hop on the bandwagon and read this novel. I promise you won’t regret it.
Looking ahead…The next two weeks Plague Turners will be making their way through the 800 page behemoth that is “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara.