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The Vanishing Half [Book Review]

Summary

The Vanishing Half is a novel by Brit Bennett about twin sisters who leave their small all-Black Louisiana town in search of new lives. Events occur which separate the sisters and lead them on individual journeys. One sister eventually returns home seeking safety from the danger she has found in the world. The other remains lost to the town as she seeks refuge from traumatizing events from her childhood which motivates her to pass as a White woman and obtain the safety of upper-class society.

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Show Notes

The man who founded Mallard, Louisiana is a maternal ancestor of the twins and was the offspring of a White slave owner father and Black enslaved mother. His parentage and light complexion results in him having expectations of privilege in comparison to “negroes” but living with the reality of not being acknowledged as a White man. The town attracts like-minded people seeking such an environment. Mallard doesn’t sound like anything special but prides itself on holding on to this tradition.

Stella is introverted and a good student with seemingly normal aspirations of attending an HBCU such as Spelman or Howard. Desiree is an extroverted and vivacious child who relishes participating in school plays with dreams of moving to a big city and becoming an actress. The pair feel suffocated by the town’s predictability and yearn for something else. Having shared the same womb and then everything during childhood the twins motivate each other to leave town. As with many small towns where interesting things rarely happen, the town’s people are incredibly nosey and notice the coming and goings of neighbors and strangers. Because most people are born, live, and die in the town, the twins’ departure receives a lot of attention.

Desiree sees herself and Stella as two parts of a whole. Stella certainly loves Desiree but is an individual with her own aspirations. Her insecurities about and fear of being judged for those aspirations cause her to keep them from Desiree. The girls leave town as teens to get away from Mallard but for different reasons. Desiree wants to become a performer but on a more basic level just wants to have the possibility of seeing and experiencing more of life. Stella is trying to find the safety and financial security that is unavailable to her in Mallard. They’re both at the point in life when most people are trying to figure out who they want to be.

The idea of a Black woman passing as White is probably the attention-grabbing headline in the The Vanishing Half’s synopsis. But, I think identity and the factors that surround its development with regards to nature and nurture is the bigger theme of The Vanishing Half. Here we have these two women who are from a place where it’s incredibly important to preserve the family trait of light complexions. Desiree rejects this idea and goes against the grain by marrying a very dark-skinned man. Conversely, Stella comes to embody the town’s founding mission by passing as a White person. She utilizes her features and light skin to gain acceptance into White society and thus ensure she would not be treated like a Black person.

When the girls leave home it’s under cover of darkness during an annual festival that helps to distract the town. They create a life for themselves in New Orleans, working and sleeping on the floor at a friend’s home until they get their own place. With Stella’s capabilities, she should be able to get a well-paying office job. But, when she applies for jobs things go well until employers realize that she’s Black and turn her down. Seeing the possibilities of a better, if not easier, life she decides to try passing as a White woman while applying for a job which sets her down a new path. This new life requires her to reinvent herself by creating a new identity that can’t be tied to her past, family, and certainly not Desiree.

Desiree once abandoned, leaves Louisiana and moves to Washington, D.C. where she finds a decent office job. At work, she meets and begins dating Sam, the man she will eventually marry. He is described as being very dark-skinned, cultured, and open to sharing his world with Desiree. Coming from a small town and being hungry to see and experience more of the world draws Desiree to Sam. But his insecurities about his complexion and place in the world both attract him to Desiree and make him abusive towards her.

Early in The Vanishing Half, much of Desiree’s being and personality are clearly visible. That’s not to say that she’s simple but rather that she’s open and straightforward. She’s not exactly fearless as she has moments of doubt where she second-guesses her decision to leave Mallard but she is willing to take chances. Her idea of freedom is having the space to be more of herself. But in meeting and marrying Sam, her wings are effectively clipped by his insecurities about her physical appearance and the resulting physical and verbal abuse. She also feels trapped by their daughter, Jude. To be clear, not the child or her presence but the tie it has created between her and Sam.

Like most of the men in The Vanishing Half, we learn a little but not much about Sam and his background. He mostly serves as a catalyst for Desiree moving back home to Mallard. But he is also a contrast to Desiree’s later beau, Early, who gets her situation and doesn’t make demands. Early’s parents were unable to care for him so they left him to be raised by an adoptive family. Feelings of abandonment instilled a compulsion to never settle in one place for too long and helped him become a skip tracer. Ironically, this person who doesn’t form strong ties to anyone or anything excels in a line of work that requires understanding people’s ties to other places and people.

The two work well as a couple because they accept each other as they are and with full knowledge and understanding of each other’s pasts. They’ve both experienced their fair share of bumps and bruises in life. These two people who have spent periods of their lives running away find what they’ve been looking for or more accurately what they need in each other. They might not be happy with how their lives turned out but are content and satisfied with each other and the home life they’ve created.

Though I came to sympathize with Stella after learning her perspective, Desiree was my favorite character in The Vanishing Half. She’s thrown several curveballs in life where the people who claim to love her and she thought she knew let her down. (Stella abandoned her in New Orleans and Sam revealed himself to be physically abusive three years into their marriage.) Yet she adapts to the circumstances and tries to make the best of things.

I felt for Desiree because she was this young person with all of these dreams who pinned her hopes on other people. She worked hard and sacrificed in pursuit of her dreams but things just didn’t work out her way. Desiree returns home where the townspeople will gossip about her leaving and the circumstances of her coming back. She didn’t like Mallard as a youth due to its limitations but would be overwhelmingly stifling as an adult woman. Part of the difference is that she has been beaten down by life and now has a child in tow who will have to bear the brunt of being dark-skinned in a town obsessed with lightness. But with no other options, Desiree swallows her hurts and disappointments to ensure her and her daughter’s survival.

Desiree and Stella leave Mallard driven by motives that are similar on the surface but vary widely in the details. They’re trying to escape from similar things but running towards solutions that will set them on very different paths. Desiree falls back on Mallard’s mission, her light skin allowing her to return home and be someone special despite being unable to find acceptance and a safe space for herself in the wider world.

Stella remains gone because her light skin allows her to gain acceptance in White society which ensures she will not be treated like a Black person. When Stella applies and is selected for a new office job while passing as a White woman, it puts her in the position to meet Blake, the White man who will become her husband. But this new identity requires creating a story about her past that explains why she has no family or seemingly anyone else who is aware of or cares about her life.

It’s been said that the hardest part about lying is not the first lie that you tell but rather remembering all the little lies you have to tell to keep the charade going. From the moment Stella becomes a White woman, the relationships she forms are built on lies and leave her in constant fear of being found out. This huge secret causes Stella to hide her true inner self and maintain a distance from everyone in her new life.

Her unease with herself causes her to be ill at ease with everyone else. Some people, such as her husband Blake, interpret this as her simply being shy. But other people regard her demeanor as being a calculated decision to remain an enigma and this only draws more attention. They pick up on little inconsistencies and view her with a degree of distrust but can’t quite put their finger on what’s off about Stella. Blake comes from an upper-middle-class family and is very financially comfortable, if not wealthy. In marrying him, Stella joins upper-class society and some of her discomfort and missteps are assumed to be a result of her coming from a poor family.

Upon relocating to Los Angeles, Blake and Stella settle into a very exclusive and well-to-do neighborhood. The people around her, including Blake, are not the blatantly violent racists that she knew in the South. They view the violent response to the Civil Rights Movement in the South as being uncivilized. But they still hold stereotypical views of Black people which they feel comfortable expressing in private amongst friends.

The White people that she has contact with are fairly wealthy and live in a community where there are no Black people. They’re also segregated outside of their neighborhood because they don’t work or socialize with Black people. Thus all they know and expect of Black people are the stereotypes they’ve learned over the years. Stella lived the early part of her life as a Black person but does not fit the image of what they expect a Black person to be. So while there might be little things that seem off about her, they would never imagine without some obvious clue or reveal that she’s Black.

To maintain her cover story throughout The Vanishing Half Stella goes to the hilt in becoming the whitest White woman to ever White woman. She affirms the ignorance masquerading as fear that is expressed by her friends and neighbors. And she also piles on in these moments to the point where her expression of racist views sometimes embarrass Blake. Stella believes that she has a greater risk of her secret being discovered by a Black person. This motivates her to go out of her way to avoid close contact with Black people so they’d have no chance to see or speak with her up close where they might see behind her mask.

The couple has a daughter, Kennedy, and instead of being overjoyed at her birth, Stella is scared that the child might develop features that betray her secret. Much like Jude, Kennedy takes after her father and physically appears to be and is thus raised as a fully White child. She has all of the privileges and opportunities that Stella dreamed of as a teen but is unaware of her mother’s sacrifice so regards everything she has as her birthright.

Stella has built this life for herself that is everything that she and her ancestors could have imagined. But, because it’s built on a lie, she can’t live in the comfort that it should provide or enjoy achieving her dreams as she would have had she obtained it honestly. Technically, she has a loving husband who doesn’t love her because he doesn’t know the real her. It’s unclear if Stella loves him for him or simply because he’s inoffensive and can provide her with the life she wants.

For the most part, Blake is oblivious to the possibility of Stella being anything but what she says because he’s wrapped up in his own life. He doesn’t notice anything being amiss as long as she’s there when he expects or needs her to be. Blake is happy as long as Stella plays the role of the perfect upper-class stay-at-home wife. But problems always arise the moment Stella tries to step off of the pedestal that Blake has built for her. Knowing Blake’s views on Black people and the vision he has of who Stella should be, she doesn’t see revealing her real identity as a viable option. There is no scenario in which she can be found out and realistically hope to hold on to the life she’s built.

This is juxtaposed against the Walkers, a married Black couple with a daughter around Kennedy’s age who moves in across the street. Loretta and Reginald met in college at an HBCU where she was studying to become a teacher and he was studying to become an actor. After college Reginald becomes a successful actor on a popular television show which allows him and his family to move into Stella’s fancy neighborhood. Loretta has the life that Stella dreamed of for herself but without having to sacrifice her identity in the process.

Stella both covets and is drawn to what Loretta has. She uses her privilege as a White woman in society to punish Loretta and ease her insecurities. Stella’s treatment of Loretta is in some ways reminiscent of Desiree’s ex-husband Sam. Sam and Stella are both aloof at first but eventually go out of their way to strike up a conversation and then a relationship with Desiree and Loretta. They then lash out to preserve their identity and ego when they feel threatened by the objection of their attention.

Both Stella and Desiree have daughters who more closely resemble their fathers which both women welcome. But as with their own lives, the desire for their children to have particular features creates unforeseeable obstacles for them. The novel plays with the concept of nature versus nurture by having each twin raise a daughter unlike herself while the niece more closely reflects her personality. In her youth, Desiree was a bit of a wild child, not the greatest student, and wanted to become an actress like Kennedy. Stella is more reserved, uncomfortable with herself, and a diligent student who aspires to be a teacher while Jude goes further and hopes to become a doctor.

To be quite honest, I loved the story that The Vanishing Half tells of Stella and Desiree and thought they were both incredibly interesting characters. But, I wasn’t that into either of their daughters. I got Kennedy’s story and motivations but she was a shallow spoiled brat (admittedly of her parent’s making) who I just didn’t care about. It’s the typical poor little rich girl story which has been done before and seemed out of place in this fresh and creative story told elsewhere in The Vanishing Half. On the other hand, I cared for Jude and thought her story was different, complex, and heartbreaking. But as she got older the focus shifted from her to her friends’ stories which seemed to go on for too long.

Overall, I enjoyed The Vanishing Half but found the first three parts of the book more engrossing than the last three. The Vanishing Half would have been flawless if it had kept its focus on Stella and Desiree, maybe diving more deeply into their lives on their own before they got married. Theirs is a new and creative story but in shifting focus to Kennedy and Jude who feel more like stereotypes, The Vanishing Half began to feel like something that had already been done before. I feel like if the focus was going to shift to Kennedy and Jude, it should have been limited to one part of the book.

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