The Vanishing Half is the second book written by author Brit Bennett. It tells the story of twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who grew up in the small town Mallard. The residents of Mallard value light skinned people and shame those with darker black skin. After having a traumatic childhood that included seeing their father killed by white men, the twins decided to run away together and get a fresh start in a bigger town.
By the time either of them step foot in Mallard again, the previously inseparable twins have split up. One is now living as a black woman back in her hometown, while the other has started to live her new life as a white woman.
This is where things really get interesting. The premise alone was enough to get me interested in this book, and it went beyond my expectations.
I was hooked the entire time I read this book. I never wanted to put it down. There was this healthy mix of conflict, drama, character development, and neo-diversity awareness.
If you don’t know what neo-diversity is checkout this Podcast.
“Nacoste coined the term “neo-diversity” to capture all the ways in which our culture is diverse, whether related to race or myriad other differences such as body condition, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, mental health condition, political affiliation or gender identity.”
The book was told from the perspective of every major character which made it easier to sympathize with everyone’s situation and better understand character motives. Stella sometimes seemed cold, uninterested, and unbothered from the perspectives of everyone she left behind. But we also saw her desire for her sister and home, and how she constantly stopped herself from going back to her old life out of fear of losing everything she had. She knew she wasn’t in the right with her actions, but she was more self-aware than she sometimes seemed.
From here on out there will be spoilers.
The story also follows two different generations as they grew up. Stella and Desire grew up in a very different world from their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. The story starts in the 1950s and goes all the way to the late 1980s/ early 1990s. Taking us from Stella and Desire’s childhood all the way to the adulthood of their children. The twins grew up in a world that was very different from the ones their daughters were living in. We were able to see how the times affected their life choices.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this story was the rise of privileges Stella got over her sister Desiree when she left her family and made the choice to pretend to be a white woman. That one difference got her married to a wealthy man, living in a luxury home, getting to go to college in her late years for fun, and not having to worry about money or discrimination ever again.
Desiree, on the other hand, ended up in the arms of an abusive husband, was forced to flee back home in fear of her safety (and for lack of resources to be on her own), worked at a diner all her life to make ends meet, and never married the second man she loved and lived with.
Those weren’t the only differences they had though. Desiree was closer to her mother, lived openly, and seemed to live without the strange struggles Stella had given herself. Stella might’ve been rich, but she had to live a constant lie that came with anxiety, self-loathing, and permanent isolation from her family.
Desiree is still figuring out her identity as well, but at least she’s able to be open about it. Stella, on the other hand, is trying to find herself while living a lie.
We also have Jude trying to understand her family and the role everyone plays in her life. Reese, Jude’s boyfriend, is trying to become more comfortable in his skin by physically transitioning to fit his male gender.And Kennedy is constantly trying to find herself and chases her acting career as a means to understand herself better.
You get the idea here.
This is a story of identity and learning to understand, live with, and accept your identity. And there’s a lot more in between that just makes the story even richer than it already is.
Aside from the twins and their children there is a ray of other interesting characters.
Desiree’s love interest is a man she met in childhood, but was discouraged from being around because of his dark skin. She later meets this boy again as an adult, named Early, when he is hired by her ex-husband to hunt her down. Once he realizes who he’s been hired to hunt he abandons the job and even offers to help Desiree locate her missing sister.
Despite the way he was treated as a child, for being darker than Desiree, he comes into the home and is eventually seen as a member of the family. His main conflicts are the colorism he faces and the fact that he is uncomfortable with stability. He works a contracting job that keeps him from home and plays the role of Desiree’s husband and Jude’s stand-in father, but never married into the family.
We also have Reese, who Jude fell in love with while away at college. Reese is a man who ran away from home when he was young because his family was unsupportive of his trans identity. He wanted to be the man he is openly, and moved onto the streets of LA when he was exiled for his decision. He had to get his T shots from strangers he met, had to make difficult decisions to afford his treatments and life, and hid his trans identity from anyone who didn’t need to know it.
He was taken off the streets by a man who performed drag on the weekends, Barry, and was able to feel comfortable in the small LGBT community he met through him. Even though he was accepted by Jude and Barry, he still faced inner conflicts and wasn’t completely comfortable with himself. He was uncomfortable with intimacy that included Jude touching or seeing certain parts of himself, and he wanted to take care of his treatment on his own without anyone’s help. It would only be in the late 1980’s when he finally got the chance to get his top surgery and after used any reason to take his shirt off. Even in the dead of winter in the freezing north.
Adelle is the twins’ mother. She believed in the colorism that was popular in Mallard. She even tells Desiree that because her first husband was a dark black man it wasn’t surprising that he was abusive. This only affirmed her belief that having darker skin is dangerous. She also witnessed the violent and racist death of her husband which likely supported her fears of colorism.
Loretta was one of Stella’s neighbors in her fancy suburban neighborhood. She was the only known black woman on the lane and her presence was desired by no one. When the housing association found out that she was moving in, with her black husband and children, they all acted disgusted and Stella spoke up to say she also didn’t want them there.
Once Loretta actually moved in Stella found herself longing for a connection with the woman. Half of her feared that Loretta would know her secret, but the other half wanted to talk to someone that matched well with her past identity. She had a very strange, but mostly positive, relationship with Loretta up until her child, a young Kennedy, called Loretta’s daughter a harsh racial slur. Loretta eventually moved off the lane. She was on her own journey of identity and she did not want to be exiled from a nice community because of her race. She was a black woman married to a successful black actor and she wanted to be treated like any other family in her social class, but the harassment she faced was too much of a risk to her family in the end.
This book is about identity. Brit Bennette herself said the message is about identity and each reader should take their own interpretations and ideas from it. This is my interpretation.
Identity is complex. While we all understand what identity is, sometimes it’s easy to forget how complex identity truly is. Identity isn’t one thing. It’s not just our race, or just our sexuality, or just or gender, etc.,
It’s where we come from, the ideals we hold, the religions we believe in, and most importantly we all have various aspects of our identities that overlap with each other.
Our identities are also impacted by so much in our environment. The people around us affect our understanding and expression of identity.
Living in the 1950s vs the 1980s will vastly change the way someone views their identity and how they express their identity to others. Stella and Desiree would’ve likely had a very different life if they grew up a few years later in a town that wasn’t as colorist as Mallard. At the same time Jude and Kennedy would be very different people if they’d grown up in the time their parents did.
Desiree learned to overcome her internal colorism struggles in her later years while Stella gave into them. This led to Stella feeling like the only character in the book who still didn’t understand her identity any better at the end. Her lack of authenticity and her inability to let herself explore her true identity also fell on her daughter years later.
Kennedy seemed stuck, confused, and unaware of who she should be. Part of her identity had been hidden from her for many years and for the rest of her life no one would understand her fully. How does a young adult move on from that?
Jude on the other hand seems to have her identity much more stable at this point. Her mother had always been honest with her so she came to terms with her family’s history long before college. She was so secure in herself that she was able to understand and support her boyfriend Reese by staying true to his boundaries.
Reese was also on an identity journey and he had to adjust himself according to his situations. He was kicked out his family home for being a trans man so he had to lose contact with them. He did not want people to know about his trans identity, likely for safety concerns, and lived stealth to avoid rough situations. Even with Desiree, who he loved very much, he had to put up boundaries with. He would not remove his shirt until his top surgery many years later, because to him it would not be true to his identity for people to see him that way.
Early also has his own identity to figure out as he goes from unstable living to domestic house life. Which is probably the reason he doesn’t marry Desiree in the book.
Desiree is also learning to be comfortable living in her hometown since she spent so much of her life trying to get away. She is also trying to decide what to do with her life after her mother passed away and she faces the thought that she can start her life over again in a different place if she chooses.
The final message that I got from this book, and these characters, is that identity is a lifelong situation.
We don’t just figure it out at 18 and relax until retirement.
Even Stella, who couldn’t ever come out as her true self, spent her later years finding herself in new classes, jobs, and careers. Jude found herself in a new career as well. Reese finally got his top surgery and was living as a man who constantly takes off his shirt. Jude is now a medical student. Early found a stable job. Etc.,
This book does an amazing job sharing stories about identity without spelling everything out for us. It makes the read interesting and enlightening while leaving lots of room for interpretation.
My favorite quote from this book is told by Stella.
“But what had changed about her? Nothing, really. She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.”
As I was reading this book I was constantly waiting for that moment where Stella and Desiree would meet again. I dreamed of how amazing it would be for both women and how Stella would come to realize that her decision was foolish and hurtful to her family. I was hoping for a beautiful scene where Kennedy, Jude, and their mothers would sit down with their romantic partners and grandmother and have a nice lunch together.
Major spoiler alert: None of that happened.
This book wasn’t about the ending. It wasn’t about some major reunion where Stella realizes she lost so much more than she gained from pretending to be white. Stella knew long before she met her sister again that she had made an irreversible decision.
How would she come back from lying to her husband and everyone she knew?
This book was about the journey that each character took within themselves to find out who they are and where they fit in the world. How colorism affected their experiences and how, in Reese‘s and Barry’s case, discrimination of any neo-diverse identity, such as gender and sexuality, also affect our experiences and ability to understand and express our identities.
What I took from this book is that identity is a hard thing for anyone, but for those of us who experience discrimination, racisim, colorism, sexism, etc., it can be even more difficult to understand and learn to live with our identities.
This book is an EASY 5 out of 5 book worms.
The writing style is elegant. The one liners are memorable. The characters are diverse and loveable. And the story moves at such a pace that it stays interesting the whole time.
I appreciate the story for taking us through time, two generations, and many different identities.
Until Next Time,