The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
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 II (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.
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Part 1: The Lost Twins (1968)
Mallard, Louisianna is a farm town originally founded by a light-skinned black man, who dreamed of and succeeded in building a town full of light-skinned black people. Many generations later, the Vignes twins (Stella and Desiree) are light-skinned black girls and descendants of the town’s founder. They ran away from home at sixteen on August 14, 1954. Desiree married a (very dark-skinned) black man, Sam Winston, and had a child. Stella has been passing for white.
The twins’ father, Leon, died when they were younger, and their mother Adele was a maid. Desiree had hated the small town and wanted to get out. Stella didn’t consider leaving until they were pulled out of school in 10th grade to work as maids as well. Before, Stella had been hoping to go to college. When a town celebration (Founders Day Picnic) rolls around, they run away, using the festivities as cover.
The twins move to New Orleans together, but Stella leaves after a year or so. Six months later, in 1956, Desiree gets a job with the FBI in the fingerprinting department and moves to D.C. There, Desiree meets Sam, an attorney with the Bureau. Now, 14 years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with her daughter, Jude. Sam started hitting her, so she had to leave.
Present day (1968) in New Orleans, Early Jones is a bounty hunter-slash-people-finder. He works with Big Ceel, a bail bondsman. He’s approached for a job from a guy (Sam) looking for the woman who ran off on him (Desiree). When Early sees her photo, he recognizes her from one summer he spent as a teenager in Mallard.
When the twins were young, Leon Vignes was murdered by five white men. They beat him while the twins watched. When Leon survived, the men went to the hospital and shot him. The men claimed Leon had written dirty notes to a white woman, but Leon was illiterate and the rumor was they’d really killed him for underbidding them in a business contract.
Present day (1968), Adele is glad to have Desiree back, and she helps Desiree and Jude settle in. At school, the other kids stare at Jude because she is so much darker than them. Desiree applies to be a fingerprint examiner at the Sheriff’s office and aces the test, but when he sees her address listed in Mallard, she’s rejected (presumably, he realizes she is black).
Desiree goes to her grandmother Lorna Vignes’s bar, The Surly Goat. She recognizes Early Jones sitting there, who she’d met the summer before she ran away. Desiree and Early had liked each other, but Adele had shooed him away because he was too dark-skinned. Now, in the bar, Early notices her bruises. When Sam calls to ask if Early has located her, Early stalls and says he needs more time.
Desiree gets a job at the local diner, Lou’s Egg House. She thinks about how when they first left Mallard, they got jobs doing laundry at Dixie Laundry in New Orleans. Stella later got a job as a secretary at a department store Maison Blanche where they only accept whites. Then, one day Stella was disappeared, leaving only a note saying sorry, but she’s “got to go my own way”. When Desiree tells Early about this, he offers to find Stella.
Early lies and tells Sam that Desiree wasn’t in Mallard. Early has to first do a job in Texas, but Desiree and Early talk on the phone in the meantime. Early tells Desiree about being raised by his aunt and uncle when he was eight. His parents dropped him off one night, since they had too many children. At twenty, he’d been caught stealing car parts and was sent to Angola State Prison for four years.
Adele advises Desiree to leave Stella alone, since she doesn’t want to be found. But, Early and Desiree head to New Orleans to look for her anyway. She calls Farrah Thibodeaux, who the twins had been friends with. Farrah had been a fellow runaway, waiting tables at a jazz club, but was now married to an alderman. Farrah had seen Stella a while back, on the arm of a handsome white man. Early and Desiree then go to Maison Blanche, where they provide Stella’s last forwarding address — in Boston, Massachusetts.
Part II: Maps (1978)
In 1978, Jude arrives in Los Angeles. She’s on her way to UCLA, to attend on a track scholarship. As the only dark girl growing up, she was used to being bullied and being lonely. She still wonders about her father, even though she remembers the bruises her mother used to have. Back in Mallard, Desiree has been home now for ten years. Early comes and goes and stays with them when he visits, though Adele still doesn’t like it.
Early had ended up tracking Stella through Boston, but the trail ran cold from there. At some point, he stopped really trying because it was clear Stella didn’t want to be found, despite Desiree’s desire to find her. Secretly, Early had also kept tabs on Sam, who was now living with a new wife and three boys.
In college, Jude meets Reese Carter, a southern boy from Arkansas. He left home as Therese Anne Carter, but arrived in Los Angeles as Reese Carter (he’s trans). Reese works as a cleaner at a gym near UCLA and loves photography. Jude and Reese quickly become inseparable. Reese’s friend Barry is a black high school chemistry teacher who transforms into Bianca to perform at a club two nights a month. Reese and Jude move in together as friends, but soon become lovers.
One night, they talk about their first kisses. Jude’s is Lonnie Goudeau, who used to bully her. Later, when they were 16, he kissed her outside a barn. What she didn’t tell Reese was that they kept fooling around, meeting secretly at night, but during the day he’d ignore her. Reese’s first kiss was a girl at church.
Reese tells her that he left home because his father beat him after catching him fooling around with his sister’s friend, dressed as a man. He considers getting surgery for his chest, but it’s expensive because of the risks the doctor is taking in case he gets caught performing the surgery. Jude wants to help, so she gets a higher paying job from Barry’s cousin Scooter, who drives a catering van.
One night Jude works a retirement party for a rich white man, Mr. Hardison, who her boss Carla Stewart (who owns the catering company) says is an important client. There, Jude meets a girl with violet eyes — but it’s seeing the woman that the girl arrives with that causes Jude to drop a bottle of wine.
Part III: Heartlines (1968)
In 1968, on the same night Desiree had returned to Mallard, Stella (now Stella Sanders) was in Brentwood attending a Homeowners’ Association meeting. The residents are angry that one of the houses had been sold to a black man. Stella, usually soft-spoken, passionately argues that they can’t let black people into the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the house is sold to the black family, after the buyer threatens to sue.
Stella’s husband, Blake Sanders, is the son of a banking executive and a Yale graduate. He was working in the marketing department of Maison Blanche when Stella was hired as his secretary. They have a blond haired, violet eyed daughter Kennedy, and they live a life of comfort. Blake believes Stella’s family are all deceased.
Stella thinks back to her life as a cleaner for Mr. Dupont before she left Mallard. Mr. Dupont would at times corner her and sexually assault her, and she knew she had to leave.
Reginald (“Reg”) and Loretta Walker move in with their daughter Cindy. The protests dissipate, since it turns out Reginald is a famous black actor who plays Sergeant Taylor, a beloved character on a popular television show, Frisk. Blake loves the show and is friendly toward Reg. However, the sight of the Walkers makes Stella anxious.
One day, Stella rips Kennedy away when she sees her playing with Cindy. Stella knows she has overreacted, and brings over a cake to apologize to Loretta, which leads to planning a play date. Over time, Stella befriends Loretta and they grow close. She longs to tell Loretta the truth, and she secretly goes over to Loretta’s while Blake is at work. Loretta has been gearing up for a fight with the school over letting her daughter in, but Stella warns her against it. Loretta eventually gives in and sends Cindy to a black school. Around this time, MLK and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated.
Stella recalls the feeling of freedom when they’d first moved to New Orleans and she first started passing for white. After a near accident at the laundry place, Stella had been fired, and Desiree had encouraged her to “pass” in order to get the secretarial gig, working for Blake Sanders. He eventually invited her to dinner. Stella felt safe with him, in a world divorced from one where her father had been murdered and she’d been sexually assaulted.
In present day (1968), the other women in the neighborhood gossip about Stella befriending Loretta. When she comes home late, she tells Blake she’s been visiting the other white women, and he finds it odd how friendly she’s being. However, at their annual Christmas party, some neighbors pointedly bring up her friendship with Loretta. Afterwards, Stella and Blake get into an argument when he finds out she’s been lying to him.
The next day, Loretta tells Stella that Kennedy can’t play with Cindy anymore. Kennedy had called Cindy the n-word. Loretta cuts off their friendship as well. Three days later, a brick gets thrown through the Walkers’ window, complements of the homeowners association president, Percy White. Soon, a flaming bag of dog shit is left on their porch and another brick goes flying. By March, the Walkers have moved out.
Part IV: The Stage Door (1982)
In 1982, Jude is working as a waitress at Park’s Korean Barbecue while applying for medical school. Reese is now working at a Kodak store. They are both constantly strapped for cash. Jude still thinks a lot about the woman she saw at the party. The woman looked like her mother, and Jude wonders if it was Stella. Jude was fired after dropping the wine.
In November 1982, Barry gets a spot in the chorus line of a small musical comedy show, called The Midnight Marauders, at the Stardust Theater. One of the other cast members is the girl with the violet eyes that Jude had met at that party, which turns out to be Kennedy. They recognize each other. Jude returns later to talk to Kennedy. Kennedy dropped out of USC to pursue acting, to her parents’ displeasure, and Jude manages to get Kennedy to confirm that her mother is Stella.
Meanwhile, Stella is now an adjunct professor, teaching Introduction to Statistics at Santa Monica College. Stella was depressed after Loretta left, and Blake had suggested taking a class to get her mind off things. Her GED class led to her pursuing an associates degree at Santa Monica college, which segued into a full four-year degree at Loyola Marymount University. Stella is now considering getting a masters or a PhD to become a full-fledged professor. She also meets up with Kennedy to try to convince her to go back to school.
Jude joins the Stardust Theater as an usher, in hopes of getting to know Kennedy. The other cast members consider Kennedy to be a spoiled brat, but Jude longs to hear anything about Stella. Reese thinks it’s a bad idea, but Jude has spent her whole life watching her mother pine over the idea of having Stella back.
At the final show, Stella shows up. Jude follows her during intermission and tells her she’s Desiree’s daughter. Stella tells Jude it was another life and leaves quickly, not staying for the rest of the show. Afterwards, Kennedy is upset that her mother didn’t show up and drunkenly insults Jude. Angrily, Jude tells her the truth about Stella and Mallard.
The next day, Stella tells Kennedy she was there in the beginning and how well she did. Kennedy brings up Mallard to her, but Stella denies knowing anything about it. Pre-emptively, Stella tells Blake about some girl claiming to be Kennedy’s cousin, which he dismisses as someone hoping for a payday.
Stella and Blake give Kennedy one year to try the acting thing with them paying her rent. Afterwards, she’ll have to get a job or go back to school. As they move her in, Stella slips up and mentions sharing her apartment in New Orleans, and Kennedy expresses frustration over how secretive Stella is about her life.
Part V: Pacific Cove (1985/1988)
By 1988, Kennedy is 27 and has resigned herself to being a soap opera actress, with a three-season arc on a show called Pacific Cove. Back when Jude had told her about Mallard, Kennedy had recognized the name immediately. Stella had told her the truth once when she was very young, though she denied it later, claiming to be from Opelousas, instead.
In 1985, Kennedy ran into Jude again. At the time, she was in New York, dating a physics professor at Columbia named Frantz and the first black man she’d dated, and she was in an off-off-Broadway musical. Jude had seen the flyers, showed up and gave Kennedy the number for their hotel room. Jude and Reese are in New York for Reese’s surgery. Kennedy is unfriendly, but talks to her, and reluctantly agrees to meet up after her show.
Jude and Reese attend the show, and afterwards Jude gives Kennedy a photograph of their mothers, with Adele standing between them. Kennedy is upset at first, but tracks down Jude at the hospital the next day to talk and waits with her for Reese to wake from surgery. Kennedy later shows Stella the photo, who still refuses to admit it’s her. She also breaks up with Frantz soon after.
By the early 1990’s, Kennedy’s acting career is effectively over, so she gets a real estate license. She turns out to be quite good at selling houses.
Part VI: Places (1986)
Around 1981, the U.S. Geological Survey determined that Mallard is to small to be a town and redrew the boundaries so that became a part of the city of Palmetto.
In 1986, Stella is headed back to Mallard-now-Palmetto while Blake is in Boston on a business trip. She hasn’t seen Kennedy since the day with the photograph when Kennedy accused her of being incapable of telling the truth. Afterwards, Kennedy moved to Europe to figure things out. Stella’s plan is to talk to Desiree so she’ll tell Jude to leave Kennedy alone.
Desiree is still at Lou’s, but now she runs the place. Desiree wonders why Reese hasn’t married Jude yet. But Reese assures her that he loves Jude, and Desiree believes him. They now live in Minnesota, where Jude is attending medical school, and Reese works as a freelance photographer for the Minnesota Daily Star.
Big Ceel has recently died, stabbed over $40 and a card game. Early now works a proper job at the oil refinery instead, and he helps take care of Adele, who has Alzheimer’s. One day, he takes Adele out fishing and when they gets back, Stella is sitting out front. In her decreased mental state, Adele barely reacts. They tell Stella to go fetch Desiree.
Stella finds Desiree at Lou’s. Desiree is angry at first, but Stella asks for forgiveness and hugs her, and they go home and catch up. When the topic of Jude and Kennedy come up, things get tense. Stella doesn’t want to ever tell Kennedy the truth, and Desiree reluctantly accept that they’ve gone down different paths. That night, Stella tries to sneak out, but Early hears her and drives her to the bus stop. Stella hands him her wedding ring to sell for money to take care of Adele.
Soon after, Kennedy finally says she is moving home, and Stella goes to fetch her from the airport. When Kennedy asks about the missing ring, Stella is glad for Kennedy to be back and too tired of lying, so she just tells her the truth. As they drive home, Stella tells Kennedy everything, and Kennedy agrees not to say anything to her father.
Adele passes away, so Jude books a flight back home. Jude and Kennedy are still in touch, unbeknownst to their mothers, so Jude tells Kennedy. Reese goes with Jude too, and Early picks them up. Afterwards, Desiree and Early move to Houston. Desiree gets a job at a call center, and Early works at the Conoco refinery. When Desiree tells Jude about the move and about living a “big life” like her sister, Jude (who spent her youth wondering about what her life would have been like with her father or with Stella as a mother) tells her that’s she’s glad she’s not like Stella, and that she’s “glad I ended up with you.”
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