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The lives of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes sets the stage for the novel The Vanishing Half. The Vignes twins grow up in the fictional southern town of Mallard in which lighter skin has been coveted for generations, culminating in the Vignes twins whom the town reveres for looking nearly white. As adults, the twins flee the town’s limited opportunities and traumatic memories for Louisiana, where their lives diverge. Stella takes a job at an office where you must be white to work. What begins as a charade for work becomes her new persona, and she distances herself from her family to maintain it. This pivotal decision drives the rest of the narrative as we see its repercussions for each of the sister’s families.
Bennett’s novel touches on themes of racial identity and the concept of race as a construct, transformations and their impact on the self and those around you, and how to heal by finding the people you want to be your family.
If you wondered where Brit Bennett got the inspiration to write The Vanishing Half and the concept of the town of Mallard…like all of the best ideas, they came from talking to her mother! Bennett’s mother told the story of the town in which people inter-married to pursue lighter skin which gave Bennett the idea for the novel. I gleaned even more interesting tidbits on Brit Bennett’s website, where you can read her past projects…for example, in her article “I Thought It Would Be Better for You”: A Mother, A Daughter, and Racism in America in 2017, I learned that Bennett’s mother worked as a finger print examiner for the FBI in Washington DC—just like Desiree!
Check out The Vanishing Half for yourself and continue reading for a great review that is full of spoilers and also some excellent discussion questions…
“Crossing Over” Raises Questions About What Race Is
Bennett’s storytelling naturally guides us to question race as a construct, as Stella’s “crossing over” is done with relative ease. The novel also showcases themes of family, character, and trauma—often within the context of race or prejudice. In this interview with Vulture, Bennett asks about race as a performance and its implications:
“On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?”Brit Bennett, ‘If You Can Perform Whiteness, Then What Does It Mean to Be White?’ by Lila Shapiro
Bennett continues the conversation with the LA Times: As our identity categories become more fluid, what will it mean to “cross-over” or “to pass” going forward?
“We think about identity categories now with much more fluidity. What does it even mean ‘to pass’? If we consider these categories to be unstable or inherently unclear or fluid.”Brit Bennett, ‘Her mom inspired her book on race and identity. Then came the Hollywood bidding war’ by Lynell George
We have seen real-life examples of people “crossing over” in the controversial social activists/professors Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug who were pretending to be black. The confusion and hurt these women caused is very real. And there is a link between them and Stella that is hard to miss: they all have a history of childhood trauma. Certainly in the context of increasing identity fluidity, the confusion around these women is compounded.
A Hateful Act of Violence and Prejudice Has Long-Reaching Consequences
A core theme of The Vanishing Half is how a violent act—in particular one motivated by hate and prejudice—can have lasting consequences that reverberate down generations. Stella’s decision to leave her family behind is in part related to witnessing the violent lynching of her father at a young age alongside her sister.
But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so.
Bennett only writes a few potent sentences on the lynching of the Vignes’ patriarch, but it’s enough for you to understand the injustice, the violence, and the trauma enacted upon the sisters. The two sisters process the event differently, and we can see the after-shocks of Stella’s trauma much later in life:
Her nightmares were always the same, white men grabbing her ankles and dragging her screaming out of the bed. She’d never told Desiree. Each time she’d snapped awake, Desiree snoring beside her, she felt stupid for being afraid. Hadn’t Desiree watched from that closet too?
Finding Your Family
Another theme in The Vanishing Half is people finding each other and making their own family. Healing each other in a way that only two people with broken hearts can do.
Reese and Jude are a family that found their way in spite of the many obstacles of the times. They persisted in working towards the hormonal and surgical goals that Reese needed for his transformation. And they maintained their family status in the face of pressures to marry. And while their relationship blossomed slowly, it may never have blossomed at all with the social barriers to same-sex relationships at the time. I breathed a huge sigh a relief when their relationship made it through the novel intact, because their love was so sweet and I was desperately afraid their story was going to be tragic. Thank you Brit Bennett for keeping their story safe! <3
One of my favorite perspectives to read was Early’s. His transformation was not by choice, but he fell in love anyway and it changed who he was. Bennett neatly captured the quiet moments of affection between Desiree and Early, who weren’t overt with their love by still felt their connection deeply. I loved how his broken soul was healed by his unexpected love for Desiree and how he slowly found a home with Desiree and her mother.
He liked the mornings when he braided Adele’s hair. She only allowed him to because she was forgetting, and he could forget, too, that she wasn’t his mother.
To the reader’s delight, Bennett takes us beyond the Vignes sister’s perspectives to the next generation and we get to experience their point of view. As one of our bookclubber’s put it, she was disappointed at first to leave Desiree’s perspective, but then she quickly got into Jude’s story. Literally every character’s story was interesting and the spacing between each narrative gave you enough time to get excited to read the next.
Kennedy is still processing the news of her black ancestry when she shares it with her boyfriend who is a physics professor at Columbia and is also black. With her pale skin, straight blonde hair, and violet eyes, he does not believe her and thinks she is joking. She begins to believe it couldn’t be real, either…
She would know, she decided. You couldn’t go through your whole life not knowing something so fundamental about yourself. She would feel it somehow. She would see it in the faces of other blacks, some sort of connection. […] Even Frantz was, essentially, foreign to her. Not because he was black, although that, perhaps, underscored it. Sometimes she stepped inside the little closet he’d converted into an office and watched him scribble equations that she’d never understand. There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.
Her alienation from the black community is in part due to her appearance, but it is also due to her distance and lack of knowledge of black culture—because her mother purposefully removed it from her upbringing. Kennedy is left to rebuild her identity and simultaneously try to understand her mother’s decisions in the frame of the trauma that initiated them.
“I want you to tell me who you are!”
“You know who I am! This,” her mother said, jabbing at the picture, “is not me. Look at it! She doesn’t look anything like me.”
[Kennedy] couldn’t tell which girl her mother was pointing at, her sister or herself.
This prompts a conversation on labels given versus labels chosen. Stella chose the label of “white” for herself, but Kennedy did not. Once Kennedy learns that “white” isn’t the entire story of her ancestry, she wants more from her mother—which Stella refuses to give.
Desiree’s daughter Jude grows up isolated and bullied because of her dark skin. Her skin color affected her opportunities even in high school:
She was the fastest girl on the track team, and on another team in another town, she might have been captain. But on this team in this town, she stretched alone before practice and sat by herself on the team bus, and after she won the gold medal at the state championship, no one congratulated her but Coach Weaver.
When Stella left her family to begin a new life, she didn’t know she would be missing out on a wonderful niece. But by choosing to leave her family behind, Stella unwittingly left Jude to grow up without one more family member to support her.
Transformations in The Vanishing Half
Bennett juxtaposes Stella’s transformation between races with another character’s transformation (probably the biggest surprise of the whole story!)…
Reese undergoes a gender change over the course of the novel. On route from Arkansas to California, Reese changes his aspect from a woman to a man, and he never looks back.
In Socorro, he began wrapping his chest in a white bandage, and by Las Cruces, he’d learned to walk again, legs wide, shoulders square. He told himself that it was safer to hitchhike this way, but the truth was that he’d always been Reese. By Tucson, it was Therese who felt like a costume. How real was a person if you could shed her in a thousand miles?
His transformation is emotional and wrought with challenges because he can’t legally obtain testosterone at that time and it takes years to afford the surgery he needs to feel at home in his body. The love scenes between him and Jude—which are as sweet as they are sexy—are at times shadowed by his need to cover up his breasts.
The genius in telling Reese’s gender transformation in the same novel as Stella’s race transformation is to force us to ask ourselves some difficult questions. What makes their transformations different? Their motivations? Who they left behind? Do we feel differently about either one ever being found out? (Find more questions in Discussion Questions below.)
The Vanishing Half: In Summary
Bennet’s writing is such a treat to read! I flew through The Vanishing Half because I was so invested in the characters she created and she paced her story to leave you wanting more. I am curious to read her first novel The Mothers and I really can’t wait to see what she writes next!
What’s Next for Brit Bennett?
The Vanishing Half will be adapted into a limited series by HBO, in a seven-figure deal for the project that was the result of a hotly contested bidding process. I’m so excited to see how HBO adapts the book considering that Brit Bennett will be on the project as Executive Producer. Remember how well HBO handled Sharp Objects (another book we read at Books&Bordeaux)?
In addition, Brit Bennett’s first novel The Mothers is being adapted into a feature film AND its starring Kerry Washington! The good news doesn’t stop for Brit Bennett! It’s super rewarding to see a great author succeed and it’s always fun to see a great book get adapted onto screen.
The Vanishing Half – Favorite Quotes
“When I was little,” she said, “like four or five, I thought this was just a map of our side of the world. Like there was another side of the world on some different map. My daddy told me that was stupid.” He’d brought her to a public library, and when he spun the globe, she knew that he was right. But she watched Reese trace along the map, a part of her still hoping that her father was mistaken, somehow, that there was still more of the world waiting to be found.
On the road from El Dorado, Therese Anne Carter became Reese.
Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.
“TV loves a black woman judge,” Pam told her. “It’s funny—can you imagine what this world would look like if we decided what’s fair?”
Wine Selection & Tasting Notes
La Vuelta Malbec. tasting notes coming soon.
The Vanishing Half Discussion Questions
- How was Stella’s transformation different from Reese’s transformation? What external and internal factors motivated these characters to cross-over? Was their isolation from their born-to family healthy or damaging? How do their transformations affect the people around them?
- How do you feel about Stella’s transformation never being discovered? Stella’s daughter eventually learns of her black heritage, but her husband, neighbors, and co-workers are still unaware when we leave the story. Bennett deliberately makes this choice…for what reason?
- How is this different from Reese’s transformation never being discovered?
- What issues cause the twins’ lives to diverge?
- Why did Bennett use the title The Vanishing Half. How many “vanishing halves” are in the novel?
- Consider the controversies caused by the reveals that social activists/professors Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug were pretending to be black.
- Discuss how the increasing fluidity in identity categories affects our view of these women.
I was writing from the perspective of a 21st century, 30-year-old person. We think about identity categories now with much more fluidity. What does it even mean ‘to pass’? If we consider these categories to be unstable or inherently unclear or fluid.Brit Bennett
- Discuss how both women had a history of childhood trauma, just like Stella from the novel.
- Why do you think we have not heard of anyone being outed for pretending to be white?
- There are many forms of racism and Bennett captures several in The Vanishing Half, from explicit violence and speech to the more subtle variations. Discuss.
- How does the town of Mallard affect the lives of the characters?
- Do you feel Stella is content with her choices?
- How did you feel when Desiree and Early bore the burden of Adele’s illness on their own?
- Were you happy when Desiree and Early finally left Mallard?