The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a complex and layered novel about secrets. At the center of the story are twin sisters, Stella and Desiree. Raised in small-town Louisiana, everyone around them focused on the color of their skin. The entire community of slave-descended, African-Americans is proud of how light everyone’s skin is. But like every small town, it’s claustrophobic for the teenage sisters.
So they run away to New Orleans. As time passes, each twin goes their own way. Stella explores life as a Black woman passing as White. And Desiree moves north, pursues a career, and marries a very dark and equally abusive husband. To escape him she travels back to her hometown and brings Jude, her very dark-skinned daughter.
Bennett tells the story of these three women, two sisters, and a daughter, through several decades. In the process, she also illustrates themes like family, genetics, race, and identity. There’s plenty to unpack in The Vanishing Half. But Bennett never forgets that she’s first and foremost a writer rather than a scientist or a preacher.
This was a terrific choice for my in-person book group. We found plenty to discuss as we considered character motivations and overarching topics. Often we resort to published “book group questions,” but we had enough questions to drive discussion on our own.
For me, this was an especially unique read since I’m also reading a book about genetics, genealogy, and identity. Bennett drills down into identity on a few levels as she tells her characters’ stories. She adds gender and sexual identity questions to the racial identity of the main theme. Her inclusion of these topics is like gently airbrushing a top layer to a painting. They enhance the story and concurrently solidify the two main themes of identity and secrets. After all, who are we if we change ourselves over time? Are we the family we came from or the family we create? And can we merge the two without causing drama and unhappiness?
All in all, The Vanishing Half was a thought-provoking and satisfying read. Bennett exquisitely blends the character studies with her themes.