Brit Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who run away from their small-town home at sixteen. Mallard, Louisiana is “more idea than place.” Founded in 1848 by a man “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes”, Mallard seems to pride itself on breeding generations who are “lighter than the one before.” That’s how one of the twins is able and makes the decision to pass as white, and thus enters a world that, in the mid 1950s, she wouldn’t normally be allowed to inhabit.
At first the sisters head to New Orleans, where they hope they will be able to fulfill their dreams which had been “trapped by [Mallard’s] smallness.” Stella, the practical one, is studious and dreams of a bigger life. Desiree “imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress.” But then, one day, Stella disappears. It will be many years before the sisters see each other again.
The Vanishing Half begins when Desiree and her young daughter, Jude, arrive back in Mallard fourteen years after she and Stella first ran away. It’s big news in a small town because nobody left Mallard and “nobody married dark”, but Desiree had done both. From here, the novel reaches back to tell the story of the girls’ initial disappearance, their separation and then what becomes of their lives.
Stella’s story is vastly different than her sister’s. She meets Blake Sanders, and marries him and they move to California, where they have a daughter called Kennedy. It isn’t until a black family moves onto their cul de sac that Stella’s past starts to resurface and we begin to see how much she has buried. Blake doesn’t know she’s black. Kennedy doesn’t know her mother has a sister. She passes as white and she lives as white and it seems to make her life both easier and harder.
It isn’t until Jude decides to attend college in Los Angeles and, by chance, sees Stella at an event where she is working as a catering waitress, that the sisters’ stories merge. Fascinated with her violet-eyed, blonde cousin Kennedy, Jude tries to put her mother’s story back together.
I really enjoyed this book. It was easy to read; the characters were interesting and complicated, and although I guess I didn’t really understand Stella’s motivation for keeping her past a secret, for denying she had a twin, I guess the truth of the matter is that we can never really understand someone until we walk in their shoes. I loved Desiree’s childhood sweetheart, Early Jones, who comes back into her life when he is hired by Desiree’s abusive ex-husband to find her. I loved Jude and her boyfriend, Reese.
Families are complicated and the families in Bennett’s novel are no different. Everyone keeps secrets, some more damaging than others. Stella’s secret, of course, is the biggest of all. Stella’s husband, for example, seems to love her unconditionally, but he doesn’t really know her. Stella’s relationship with Kennedy is, especially as Kennedy gets older, tense, but how could it be anything but? Kennedy has questions; Stella has no answers she’s willing to give.
I didn’t finish Bennett’s novel The Mothers, but I have no qualms about recommending this one to readers.