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. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly 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’ story lines intersect?The Vanishing Half Blurb
Right off the bat, I’m going to contribute to the hype that this book has already received on the internet. If you’re put off by over-hyped books, then please skip this review and cut straight to reading this book.
The idea of this story is really simple and yet Bennett infuses it with complexity because of the themes and topics she addresses. I really liked how it shows the development of two twin sisters’ lives, both together and separately, and how their individual choices impact the family as a whole.
This book is very representative of a lot of different people, and the characters vary in race, sexuality, gender identity, class and relationships. I think Bennett creates a cast of characters who are not only widely diverse, but also are not simply stereotypes of the different groups they represent- we see a real spectrum of personalities within the society that she creates. No character is portrayed as perfect, and this book really shows how our flaws bring us together just as much as our merits.
The plot doesn’t take any major turns that you wouldn’t expect, but this book never feels predictable, and the characters’ actions always have consequences that ripple through the family and those around them. It’s an emotional story that will definitely tug on your heartstrings, and it takes you on the up-and-down journey that we all experience as we go through life. At the same time as it is utterly relatable, Bennett explores really important issues such as colourism, which for me was really eye-opening and educational about the nuances that can exist within this issue that I may not have been aware of due to cultural differences.
There are a lot of sensitive topics included in this book, including racial abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, death, colourism and racism. If you are particularly affected by any of these issues, you might want to consider whether or not this book is the right read for you.
All in all, this is an excellent read, and I don’t want to offer too many thoughts for fear of spoiling your first experience reading this. It is beautifully written, and a truly touching read.
Plot and Characters Review (Spoilers!)
The plot of this book is so cleverly crafted, and I personally really liked the jumps in time as we switched from the twins’ generation to their children’s. I think that by taking this approach, Bennett keeps the reader on the same journey as her characters as they discover how intertwined and yet separate their lives have become. By prolonging this process, the reader becomes more emotionally invested in the story, almost participating themselves in the efforts to retrace Stella’s steps and find out what happened to cause such a rift.
I really liked how the twins were distinguished from each other from the outset of the novel through their personalities, avoiding the stereotypical portrayal that equates identical looks with identical characters. The different motivations that the girls had to leave echoed this as well, but were cleverly similar; both were trying to escape trauma. I liked the fact that the subsequent lives the twins ended up living, with Stella married into a white family and Desiree returning home to Mallard to look after their mother, were the reverse of how each one had reacted to leaving their hometown. I think this shows how much we change as we grow up, and poses an interesting comment on the nature vs nurture debate in terms of showing how our experiences can change us.
In terms of the children, I have to confess that when I first started reading about Jude and Reece I really thought Reece was going to end up being the Stella’s son. Which was of course very disturbing, and I was very glad when I realised that this was not the case. Classic reading misunderstanding moment. I really liked that Jude seemed quite similar to Stella, being more practically minded and wanting to study medicine, and being quieter or more nervous. Then, when we meet Kennedy, she seems more similar to how Desiree is described as a teenager: more confident and outgoing. It was a really clever way to demonstrate how family ties remain regardless of distance and lifestyles. I did get that Kennedy was meant to be a bit spoiled, but the main part of her character to me was just how lost she was. It felt like she was the typical posh girl who was hiding behind an act of confidence how stuck she really was. Maybe that was just because I had built up a lot of sympathy for the characters in general, so I might have been too kind on her in my character assessment.
It was really sad to see how similarly tragic both Desiree and Stella’s lives were. They both felt semi-trapped after running to escape unpleasant situations, with Desiree running from her abusive husband back to her hometown and then staying there for years, and Stella running from her sexually abusive employer and getting stuck in a life pretending to be white. I did think there was going to be a big freeing moment when they reunited, and although I was surprised that this didn’t happen, I think it was better that way. It would’ve felt too false and engineered against how raw and natural the rest of the story felt. There were quite a few moments like that throughout the novel, where Bennett almost dangled the carrot of escape in front of them, whether it be Stella’s friendship with Loretta, when Jude finds Stella at the play, and the ending when Jude tells Kennedy their grandmother has died. They made the book even more beautifully painful.
I really liked the portrayal of relationships in this book. Stella and Blake represent the couple that look perfect on the outside, but are secretly unhappy and suppressing themselves to keep the relationship working. Desiree and Early are the childhood sweethearts, but are far less conventional than this trope tends to be, due to their not getting married and getting reunited under such dubious circumstances. Kennedy’s relationship with Frantz on the surface seems like a rebellious reaction to her mother’s refusal to admit her real identity, but I also think is a way for her to try and connect to her secret family and stop feeling so lost. Jude and Reece were just a refreshing couple, and it was nice to have trans representation in a novel without it being pushed to the centre; this didn’t feel performative in the slightest.
The setting of Mallard was really interesting, and it gave a different perspective of colourism than I’m used to reading. I think most of the literature I’ve consumed that confronts racism and colourism is more similar to the parts where the twins’ dad is killed by white men, or the racist abuse that the Walker family face when they move into Stella’s white neighbourhood. I thought that Bennett did a really good job of showing colourism as well as racism, particularly when Jude enters Mallard as a child and is treated as an object of disapproved spectacle. This is not something I feel particularly educated about, so I really appreciate the chance to understand this issue more.
I’ve seen some reviews that didn’t like how the ending left things unresolved between Stella and Desiree, but I personally thought it fit really well with the story. This book feels really intimate, and it is almost like looking into another family’s memories. For me, although I’d love to have seen more of how their lives unfurled, I felt like I had just reached the end of what I had a right to see. It felt like a natural point to finish the book, and I actually really like Bennett’s choice to do that.
Concluding Thoughts and Rating
This book is just amazing. I think it’s my favourite book that I’ve read this year. If you’re in doubt, read this. It’s beautifully written, emotional and completely captivating.
I’m rating The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett five stars.