By Brit Bennett
My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.2
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date Published: June 2nd, 2020
Format Read: Audiobook
Goodreads Summary: The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
The Vanishing Half is a book about a set of light-skinned black twins who end up taking very different paths in life. One of them, Stella, ends up opting to pass as white, abandoning her old life completely so that she can pretend to be a white woman. The other twin, Desiree, continues to live as a black woman, and ends up marrying a very dark-skinned man and having a dark-skinned daughter. In contrast, Stella’s daughter is not only extremely light, she believes that she is white and society believes it too. This sets up for a contrast of four different stories- Desiree, her daughter Jude, Stella, and her daughter Kennedy. Although all four of these women work their hardest in life, and both adults try to set up their daughters for ultimate success, they end up living dramatically different lives.
I absolutely loved this book. It set up the town of Mallard (where the twins are from) so vividly from the start that I felt truly immersed in the world. I could understand the twins and their family and their town, and that allowed me to understand everything else that happened after that. Although the beginning was slightly slower than the rest of the book, it never felt unnecessarily long because of the world building that was being done. Bennett is so good at writing descriptions both of characters and of places. Each of these women had their own flaws and their own positive qualities that I could see in equal measure. I love when an author allows us to see the main character’s negative sides as well as what makes them great, and this book was a perfect example of that. The fact that it was told from four different perspectives and that all four of these women felt strongly about the others meant that the way we saw each one was constantly in flux. With each new chapter we would learn a new detail that slid everything else into place.
This book made the dichotomy between color being a social construct and color mattering abundantly clear. Yes, Stella could be either white or black depending on how she presents herself. But it is also true that when people think she is black, she is unable to get jobs or live in certain neighborhoods. Yes, passing as white can make it easier for her to move up the social ladder. But it is also true that she is always on edge, lying and avoiding other black people who could likely discern her true identity. Nobody in this book is living an idea life, except perhaps the white people who we meet only tangentially. These women are complex and struggling and succeeding in ways that they never dreamed.
This book also has great trans rep! Reece is a transgender man who ends up becoming Jude’s love interest for a large part of the novel. Although his trans-ness was centered in parts, it was never made to be an issue for Jude, nor was it Reece’s entire personality. He was a fully fleshed out human being, and the fact that he wouldn’t let Jude touch his chest until he got top surgery was just a part of that. Reese and Jude were one of the cutest couples in the story, and I loved that a black woman and a trans man could be shown in a happy, supportive relationship. Reece passes just as Stella passes, but what makes the two of them fundamentally different is that Reese isn’t lying about who he is. He’s open and honest with Jude about where he comes from and the fact that he is still mid transition, whereas Stella keeps everything about herself and her past a secret from her husband. I loved Reece’s character, and he was one of the biggest pulls into Jude’s scenes for me.
I loved this book because of the emotional vulnerability. If you don’t enjoy books that throw you into a character’s mind space and force you to see all of the pain that they see, this book isn’t for you. It felt bitterly honest even in the happiest seasons, of which there were very few. At the end of the day, this book was a look at suffering. Even when our characters were succeeding (and there was success), we brushed over that to instead keep a firmer focus on the negatives and the struggles. It didn’t feel like it was intentionally keeping us in a negative space. Instead, Bennett made it clear that even while these characters are ostensibly succeeding that doesn’t suddenly make everything all better. These characters felt like real people, and I loved the book for that.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and don’t think there was really anything special to say about it. At times I wished I’d read it because there were some beautiful lines that I wanted to reread and stare at in print!