Book review and synopsis for The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a story about two twins living divergent lives.
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.
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.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was on a lot of lists for highly anticipated books for 2020, but now it’s been picked up for an HBO limited series in a 7-figure deal. I really enjoyed this book, and I think it would be so fantastic as a television series, so I’m looking forward to when that happens. But I think this book is worth reading before then!
I was surprised how quickly I found myself drawn into this story. Bennett’s writing is straightforward, but descriptive in the right places. There’s not a lot of filler, which I generally prefer, and the plot moves forward at a pretty steady clip. I more or less read it straight through, with some breaks to run errands, eat and walk my dog.
It was also an unexpectedly effortless read, considering the somewhat heavy topics in the book. I knew based on the reviews that it would likely be a book with good insights on race, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the story even apart from that. It’s a multilayered story about identity, family and the secrets we keep.
In the course of the story, the Vanishing Half ties in a number of characters with contrasting experiences. Jude’s story is that of a dark-skinned young woman coming of age and discovering her identity. Stella is a light-skinned Black woman passing as white, and Desiree is a light-skinned Black woman who chooses to maintain her Black identity. Kennedy grows up believing she is entirely white. And Reese is transgender, while Barry dresses in drag just a few nights a month.
The characters are faced with limitations and hard decisions as they are forced to choose their identities. In making those choices, the Vanishing Half also contemplates the things that people must hide from those that they love, the sacrifices they have to make and the things they have to do to keep those identities safe from others who wouldn’t accept it. As I was reading it, the resounding question through all of these disparate yet similar obstacles was, why should any of this be necessary?
The Vanishing Half is set a few decades in the past, but Bennett uses her premise to explore a number of very contemporary issues about race. For example, Stella ends up living in a white neighborhood, filled with the type of people who might support Dr. King’s ideas, but who also don’t want Black people living in their neighborhood.
While outright racism like that is less blatant now in 2020, there are plenty of supposedly “woke” liberals nowadays who still wouldn’t consider marrying outside their race (most will make an exception for a fling or hookup) and whose social circles consist entirely of other white people, with maybe one token Black friend (often bi-racial and almost always someone of means) added on.
Mostly, I just think this is just a solidly compelling drama that wraps in a lot of issues about identity, family and race in a way that feels thoughtful and not too heavy handed.
The Vanishing Half Audiobook Review
I listened to part of the audiobook which Shayna Small narrates, and thought it was just okay. The timbre of the woman’s voice didn’t really appeal to be, I found it to be a bit thin, but there was nothing objectively wrong with it.
You can take a listen to the clip on Amazon to see if it appeals to you, but it wasn’t to my taste personally.
Read it or Skip it?
The Vanishing Half is a powerful, timely and very human story about identity and race. I very much enjoyed this book the whole way through. There are some books that I keep reading after it’s no fun because I know it’s good for the mind, but this is not one of those books.
It would be such a great book club book because of the perspectives it works into the narrative. I really, really wish I had a group to discuss this book with right now. Mostly I’m curious what others from different backgrounds would think, since depending on people’s experiences you may view these characters and the decisions that they make differently.
Beyond that, this would be good for people who are looking for a novel to help them understand some of the issues surrounding race (and even transgender issues). It also works as a general work of fiction for those who like books about personal journeys, coming of age stories and narratives about self-discovery.
The main group of people I’d be less likely to recommend this book to is those who are well versed on issues about race and who are specifically looking for a book to further their understanding and challenge their views. While this book does a good job of telling a powerful and meaningful story, as far as issues surrounding race goes, I think most of the territory this book covers will be familiar to that type of reader. (I’d actually point them to Ta Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, if you’re looking for a recent fiction release in that vein.)
What do you think? Have you read The Vanishing Half or would you consider reading it? Leave your thoughts below!
As teenagers, what do you think drove Desiree and Stella’s desires to leave the town?
What do you think it says about the town and its founders that they wanted to live in a town with entirely light-skinned black people?
Why do you think Stella feels she has to leave Desiree in New Orleans without saying goodbye?
What do you think about Desiree’s decision to marry a dark-skinned black man, Sam? Why do you think she ended up with him?
What do you think of Stella’s decision to pass as white? What do you think she was hoping to achieve or get out of it, and do you think it was worth it?
Who did you sympathize or connect with more, Stella or Desiree? If you were in their situation, what path do you think you would have chosen?
Do you agree with Early’s decision to stop trying to find Stella because it was clear she didn’t want to be found?
Why do you think the neighborhood loves the character that Reginald Walker plays on his television show, but still treats him so poorly?
What do you think about Jude’s curiosity about Stella? Do you think that’s a healthy fixation?
What do you think inspires people who are similar to the character of Percy White (president of the Homeowner’s Association) to act the way that do?
Why do you think Stella becomes depressed after Loretta leaves?
A lot of the characters have things about themselves they feel they have to hide from others. In what ways are those challenges similar or different for characters such as Stella, Reese or Barry?
At the end of the book, when Stella finally goes home, why do you think Stella tries to leave without saying goodbye? And why do you think Stella still wants to hide her past from her husband after going through all this?
What did you think about the ending? Did you like the way things were resolved?
Highly Recommended Published June 2, 2020
Page Count 352 pages
Goodreads4.16 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
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. Many 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.
A great review, Jennifer! I have recently read and reviewed this book too! I agree with everything you pointed out and that it’s an effortless read! :)
I just finished reading the book a few minutes ago, and I’m curious to know if you liked the ending? It seemed a little unfinished to me, but I tend to feel that way about any book that leaves any sort of loose ends. I always prefer when the author really ties everything up in a pretty bow (to my own fault). I didn’t understand the last sentence and it’s significance. Curious to hear other opinions on this. After reading your review, I see that every character in this story had their own secrets, even down to Early and Barry, which made me appreciate the author’s crafting of this book. And I agree, it felt to be less about issues of racism but about secrets.
Hi Julie, I love thoughtful and interesting comments like yours, so first thank you for your thoughts! I took the last sentence (about the river and begging to forget) to be about how we are all formed according to our paths, and most of us have some part of that we try to leave behind and pain associated it that we want to forget about. Each of these characters is a product of their past and also is trying to make peace with their past as well.
I actually liked the ending to the book. Perhaps it felt a little sudden, but I think it made sense. I thought it was both hopeful (the daughters staying in touch, Jude and Reese being happy, Stella and Kennedy able to finally address the truth) and realistic (Agnes passing away and being buried in a still-segregated cemetery, Stella and Desiree get some form of reconciliation, but ultimately Stella stands by the decision she made so many years ago and can’t fathom changing her life now).
Would love to hear other opinions on this as well!
I don’t know about the last sentence, but the last scene made sense to me. Often in literature and in movies, a river is where sins are washed away and life starts anew. Here Reese bares his chest (getting comfortable with his transformation) and they both wade in the water hoping to forget. Jude had just returned to a town where she grew up reviled by everyone. It was totally appropriate to me that she would want to wash those sins away.
I related to this book for so many reasons. My parents were from Palmetto. I have many fond memories of summer vacations there. Because of my family background (my mom was very light, my dad was dark), I understand many of the issues addressed in this story. For those struggling with the notion of racism, consider using the word discrimination instead. There wouldn’t have been a need for secrets if there hadn’t been discrimination in the first place.
Loved the book and yes it did raise so many issues. Made me think of my own life and how I fluctuate with using a different voice on the phone to sound more like a ” white woman” when I want to make sure I get what I want from the call! So many women of color will have their own personal reflections of how life gets played out pending on the pigmentation of your skin. I loved how Bennett made the characters not ” perfect” but full of the real issues that make up the racial questions we all have to grapple with every day, especially if you are a woman of color. Passing to survive!
Jude actually attended UCLA, not USC.
Reminds me of the film “Imitation of Life” which was a classic movie and very emotional, ending with Mahalia Jackson singing a real tearjerker at the black mother’s funeral. Actually my grandmother had a sister who ended up “passing” and abandoned the family who never saw her ever again. Very sad scenario, regardless of the story😞.