‘The Vanishing Half’ presents a stunning story about belonging
Genevieve Coleman | Thursday, April 29, 2021
I stumbled across “The Vanishing Half” a few weeks ago when I was looking for a book to read. I was interested in the premise — identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes from small-town Louisiana run away, wanting to escape their everyday existence. In the process, they lose track of each other and lead completely different lives.
Looking for an escape myself, I settled into the novel written by Brit Bennett and had a hard time putting it down.
The story itself traverses more than three decades, chronicling Desiree and Stella’s childhood in the town of Mallard, their time away from home as teenagers and eventually their lives as adults with partners and children.
Bennett’s writing is elegant and full of details that bring the twins to life. Though Desiree and Stella are physically identical, their personalities are distinct, gifting them the individuality the world often denies them.
“The Vanishing Half” artfully engages with the racism and sexism Desiree and Stella contend with throughout the entire arc of the story. As children, they witnessed the murder of their father by a group of white men, forever changing them and their family’s dynamic. When they get older, both Desiree and Stella consider how they belong in a society that will not accept young Black girls thriving.
Constantly faced with microaggressions in a town with an overwhelming majority of white individuals, Desiree and Stella finally decide they feel too confined by the restrictions imposed on them and quietly slip out of town one summer night.
Living with each other for a few years, both go their separate ways and lose touch.
In their time apart, the reader is introduced to a striking cast of supporting characters who further the plot with their own battles with self-identity. Most, like Desiree and Stella, are looking for their niche in a society that marginalizes them because of their race, sex or gender identity.
Bennett also makes the reader think about the implications of passing — the experience of mixed race individuals who could identify as white because of the color of their skin. Arguably, the reason why Desiree and Stella end up leading different lives is because Stella chooses to pass and Desiree does not.
Though she is often afraid about her true identity being revealed, Stella’s choice gives her more opportunities and freedom than Desiree because of the way she is perceived by the world.
Desiree herself must overcome obstacles in her domestic life and finally returns to Mallard as an act of desperation. Staying in the town to escape what she left behind, Desiree experiences more overt racism because of her daughter’s darker skin. Navigating the challenges of living in a community she once rejected, Desiree searches for her long-lost sister while raising her daughter in a society that will not accept her based on her appearance.
Bennett effortlessly weaves through different times and spaces to create a fully unified narrative that spans three generations and arrives at a satisfying conclusion for both Stella and Desiree.
Overall, “The Vanishing Half” triumphs as a story about finding one’s place in an unaccepting society and restructuring familial bonds when faced with tragedy and loss.
Title: “The Vanishing Half”
Author: Brit Bennett
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
If You Liked: “Little Fires Everywhere,” “The Mothers”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5