The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a riveting tale of two Black sisters who are so light-skinned that one decides to pass as White while the other accepts who she is. It delves into race and complexion but also into family ties ruptured by one person leaving the family by choice.
Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins living in Mallard, Louisiana, a town purposely populated by light-skinned Blacks. Desiree, the more outgoing and outspoken twin, conjures up a plan for her and Stella to leave town at sixteen. They sneak away from their home and end up in bustling New Orleans in 1954. They find work until one day Stella disappears without a trace.
The novel moves ten years forward with Desiree making the journey back to Mallard with her young daughter Jude. The townspeople notice right away how dark-skinned Jude is. When Desiree returns to her mother, she tells her she hasn’t seen Stella in years.
Unbeknownst to her family who she kills off when anyone asks about their whereabouts, Stella is making a life in Los Angeles with her husband Blake and young daughter Kennedy. Except Stella is living a lie: She is passing for White. Her struggle to keep the secret haunts her as she’s known around their White neighborhood in Brentwood as sometimes being moody and quiet. When a Black actor and his family fight to buy a home in the neighborhood, Stella worries her life will be ruined since she’s avoided her own people for so long to avoid her cover from being blown. Putting her Karen tendencies to the side, she decides to make friends with the Black mother living across the street from her and they become fast friends—something neighbors start gossiping about.
Years later, Jude heads to UCLA with the goal to find Stella. She doesn’t tell her mother that she thinks the missing twin is in LA, but she stumbles upon Kennedy and makes the connection that it’s her cousin. The two try to be family as Kennedy is conflicted about who she is, now knowing that her mother has been lying her entire life.
The literary fiction novel jumps timelines intersecting the twin sisters and their separate lives with their daughters who know the emotional strain the separate lives have brought upon the family. It’s reminiscent of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng with the writing and storytelling style through characters’ various secrets. It’s definitely a graduation from the author’s debut novel The Mothers, which is a great debut novel also diving into secrets within a contemporary community.
At the end, the author says she was inspired by Imitation of Life, more the 1959 film rather than the novel by White Jewish author Fanny Hurst, who came under fire at the time for stereotypical presentations of the Black mother character as a Mammy figure and her light-skinned daughter as a tragic mulatta passing as White. The “passing” technique has left holes in Black families since the end of slavery, and it’s a topic that’s still relevant today as people may or may not defend their ethnicities based on their looks. With the conversation of race, this novel is a good choice under the anti-racism reads to emphasize how some people give up their old lives as one race for new lives under another race due to the opportunities they feel they couldn’t get before.
Overall, it’s an engrossing piece interlacing the lives of two sisters who don’t know where the other is because one becomes obsessed with dodging obstacles surrounding race until she evolves into a new person with a new past that subtracts her bloodlines.