“She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half is the story of two twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, who run away from their little town in the hopes that they will find a better life. Upon leaving, Stella and Desiree find themselves stuck in another world of the same. One morning, Desiree wakes up to find that her sister has disappeared into the vastness of the United States. She moves on with her life, only to eventually return to her small hometown in search of her sister and protection from an abusive husband. Once returning, Desiree enlists the help of an old flame to find her sister. She has no luck. After years of searching, Desiree gives up just in time to send her daughter to college and it’s ultimately the younger generation whose paths intertwine in a manner that changes their lives forever.
This book deals heavily with race. But in the case of the twins, race seems to take a backseat to the larger story at hand. Yes, Stella and Desiree both are light skinned black people in a town of light skinned black people; yes, the girls embrace different aspects of themselves; yes, this ultimately leads to the major conflict of the story. But, the story doesn’t really follow Desiree and Stella because their lives are destined to be separate. The story follows the twins’ daughters – Kennedy and Jude – and this is where the story becomes about race. Jude is described as being the darkest shade of black possible whereas Kennedy is a blonde haired girl. The two girls could not be more different, yet they share that undeniable thread of family. Here is where race becomes the main part of the story. The theme at hand is race and how it contributes to family. Stella ultimately tries to change her race which severs the ties she has to her family. Desiree embraces who she grew up as, returning home when she needs to feel secure in her identity. Desiree always knows who she is; Stella doesn’t.
In terms of identity, this book spends ample time building up the characters. Bennett wants you to understand the characters on a level that one can really only understand family. She wants you to make a decision about the characters for yourself; she writes them as if she wants the reader to feel like the characters are family. She writes the dysfunctional older generation’s dynamics that are built on secrets and lies while really telling the story of the younger generation who searches for the truth in order to build their own family. To bring people together, she wants you to dig through the story for the truth. But the truth comes in pieces, which is why the narrational choice really suits this book because it solves the mystery of who Stella really is piece by piece. But even by the end of the book, I feel as though the reader only gets half of a sense of Stella because she is confused about her own identity. Everything in this novel always wraps around to the theme of identity. To each of the twins, the other is the vanished half. The difference between the two is that Desiree creates her own identity in their town while Stella is allowed to remain a mystery because her lies have twisted her into something that she doesn’t recognize and this explains some of her decisions throughout the book.
I’ve touched quite a bit on the idea of the twins but I should spend some time discussing Kennedy and Jude. Their dynamic almost mirrors the twins dynamic in the sense that they are opposites. Kennedy feels like she should’ve been born to Desiree and Jude feels like she should’ve been born to Stella. Jude is inquisitive and much of this comes from living in Mallard and feeling like she was meant to be somewhere else; Kennedy is given all the opportunities of growing up in Los Angeles and knowing that she is wealthy enough to make all the crazy life decisions in the world. Yet, when presented with the truth, both girls want the family they’ve been robbed of and this forces the twins to confront what happened to them in New Orleans when they ran away. The younger generation reunites the older generation in a game of chance that feels like it should be cheesy but is actually a stunning commentary on fate and the destructive nature of lies.
Overall, I recommend this book to anyone. The narration is easy to follow but the story is really made up by the intricate nature of the family. The characterization makes the story feel like it could be the story of any family and it’s told in a soapy nature that plays on some of the overdramatized moments and makes them work. This novel is stunning and I think that anyone could take away a lot from this novel, especially in this political climate. It’s ultimately all about educating yourself and this book delves into racism in the immediate decades following Civil-Rights America and while it can feel really subtle at times, this is important even now, considering Civil Rights was only eighty years ago. Please go out and read this book! I promise you’ll enjoy it!