The Vanishing Half: A tale of one family split in two

Sometimes friends and book clubs lead you to books you’d never have picked up otherwise. I’m pretty sure Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is one of those books for me, not because it’s not my style or not what I enjoy, but simply because it wasn’t really on my radar before.

The Vanishing Half is the story of twin sisters and their daughters, spanning several decades as they build lives for themselves and wrestle with the consequences. Desiree and Stella come from a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s and even though everyone is black, the whole town is committed to being as light-skinned as possible. The twins run away to New Orleans when they are 16 and eventually are separated when Stella disappears.

Desiree returns to their small town when she takes her dark-skinned daughter and runs from her abusive husband. Throughout the years, she’s never forgotten Stella but all hope seems lost until Desiree’s daughter, Jude, moves to California to go to school. Jude is catering at a fancy white party when she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks exactly like her mother, only white. Knowing the mystery that has always been Stella, Jude can’t let it pass without uncovering the truth of who the woman is.

Bennett packs a lot into this book. Racial tension and violence, wrestling with self-image and the sacrifices made to build a life, the transgender experience of the late 1970s. And despite each character being put through the wringer, they are all confident and stand behind who they are and what they’ve chosen. Though victimized, they are not the victims of the story, which I really appreciated.

Bennett provides glimpses into the minds and experiences of people that I will never be, but she does so in a way that helps me start to understand what it could be like without judgment. Though Stella’s passing isn’t condoned, it’s also not thoroughly condemned by the author and characters, either. Stella remakes herself into someone completely different and the trouble arises primarily because of all the lies she’s told and maintained in an effort to erase her past completely. Desiree was always the adventurous twin, but she’s the one who ended up fleeing her husband and returning to the small town she always hated. But she’s not shamed for returning without conquering the world (though the darkness of her daughter’s skin is a completely different story with the townsfolk).

I liked how Bennett stretched the story across two generations, showing how the choices of one affects the lives of the next. While not always successful, I think they storytelling technique worked really well for this story and for Bennett’s characters. Each character had their own story and all the threads were woven together to show a picture of the family.

Be advised, though, this story isn’t a neat and tidy, happily-ever-after ending. I suspect that many readers would find the ending quite challenging, but I find the openness very realistic. Often when people have made so many choices, they aren’t going to give up the life to try to reclaim what they’ve already given up. It’s up to each person to choose to move forward with the life they’ve been given, regardless of how even family chooses to go.

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