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.
I picked up The Vanishing Half at the library as part of our Lucky Day Collection. I did not know what to expect with this book and was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed every minute of reading this book. The themes in the book are relatable as they were back 40 years ago when the story took place, to now. The overarching theme of the book that I took away was identity. Brit addresses the issues of colorism, Gender identity, and who exactly am I. All the main characters grapple with this existential problem.
We are first introduced to the twin girls Stella and Desiree Vignes. They live in an extremely small town, called Mallard down near New Orleans, of Black people who are light-skinned enough to pass for white if they wanted to. The “twins” which everyone in town refers to them up and leave. At that point, the stories of Stella and Desiree diverge. Desiree going up North and Stella moving around but as a white woman. The story centers around these two sisters and the separate lives that are drastically different. Serendipitously, their daughters find each other. Jude, dark-skinned and lived with her mother, Desiree; never being invited to anything and lonely. Kennedy, white who doesn’t know what to do with herself but has all the privilege.
As a Black person, you always hear whispers of family members or friends of the family who passed as white. However, to see it depicted in the book is something else; it made it tangible and objective. As readers, we see Stella secretly enjoyed that she got away with it, and as she continued to do it being swept up in the whirlwind of lies begetting lies. Readers get to see the extreme lengths and paranoia Stella goes through to maintain her whiteness. Desiree pining after her sister for decades and never really moving on until the end of the book was a little disappointing but reflective of real life. At times, we feel there is something holding us back or in place until there is visceral relief either by death or an open and honest conversation.
Jude and Kennedy, unfortunately, symbolize the burdens children oftentimes have to carry because of their parents. Jude basically was the manifestation of the intolerance the town, mother, grandmother had of dark-colored Black people. I would argue that Desiree’s marriage to Jude’s father who was dark was an act of rebellion; which her daughter had to pay the price. Jude grew up in Mallard with a complex of being ashamed of her skin color and she would never be properly loved. I was so happy when Jude and Reese got together. Kennedy is the exact opposite. Kennedy grew up with no limitations; everything was handed to her. She never wanted to for everything. This allowed her to leave relationships and jobs when they no longer suited her. However, it caused tension with her mother Stella. Stella having grown-up Black and relatively poor did not possess the cavalier attitude like her daughter. Who for all intents and purposes is white.
Additional Things I liked
What I did not like
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