Not being able to see the cover of this book (only a placeholder was on Edelweiss at the time), that left only the title itself to make me want to find out what the book was about. The word ‘vanishing’ probably would have been enough, but for the title to be The Vanishing Half? I definitely wanted to discover what this book was about.
The Vignes sisters, Desiree and Stella, are identical twins who grew up in a small black community in Louisiana in the 1950s. Founded by their ancestor in the mid-nineteenth century, the thing that sets the community of Mallard apart is the fact that everyone who lives there has light skin. Running away from home together at sixteen, one sister will leave the other behind when she chooses to pass as white—a decision that forces her to lie to her white husband and their daughter. The other sister ends up back in Mallard, along with her ebony-skinned daughter—who is made to feel like an outcast because of the darkness of her skin. The choices each sister made will alter the course of not only their own lives, but that of their children’s, as well.
I remember reading historical novels where a character (major or minor) was revealed to be passing for white, but it was always more a plot twist, rather than the point, of the books. This is the first time I’ve found a book where it was the driving force behind a major character, effecting everything that happened throughout the book—which is precisely why I wanted to read it.
The book spans four decades, and is alternately told from the perspectives of Desiree, Stella, and their daughters. Each perspective (and decade) is clearly marked, so there is never any confusion about who the focus is on, or when.
Desiree’s and Stella’s portions of the story were the ones I most wanted to read. It’s not that their daughters portions were less interesting (far from it!), but the sisters were the very heart of the story. Regardless of how each chose to live her life, neither sister was free of heartaches, fears, or regrets. Both sisters grieved over the loss of the other, and those feelings were so poignantly written that I grieved right along with them.
I won’t say much about the daughters portions of the story in this review, so as not to spoil which sister leaves the other behind. The one thing I will say is that one of them had a storyline that was significantly more fascinating to read, thanks to an important person in that daughter’s life. I was genuinely surprised when certain revelations came along, and it was so wonderfully written that I doubt I’ll ever forget that particular character’s role in the story.
It’s impossible for me to know what it would be like to pass for white in 1950s America, (or any time or place, for that matter) because I am white. I only know that it did happen. I can’t know what it must have been like for anyone who did it, but I would assume they would always have been fearful of discovery. I can’t begin to imagine the stress it must have caused, nor the heartache. Were there regrets… a wish to go back and undo that decision? Or was there only satisfaction (if successful)? I wonder… I wonder what those real stories would be. It makes me want to search for those books (I only know of one), and it makes me want to find articles (if any) telling the story of an actual person’s life. Who they were… why they did it… and how it all worked out (or didn’t) in the end. The point of all this is that it made me think—really think—about something I’ve never had to think about, simply because I was born white. In my opinion, any book that can make you think is well worth the time spent reading it.
Bennett has crafted a powerfully moving novel. Impeccably written, The Vanishing Half is filled with characters that will leave a lasting impression, and a story that will leave you with far more to consider than the fictional aspects. Very highly recommended.
About the Book
From the New York Times -bestselling author of The Mothers , a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.
The Vignes twin 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: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.
About the Author
Born and raised in Southern California, BRIT BENNETT graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.