Sharon's Book & Wine Club - September 2020
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
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
Many 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’ 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.
Summary by Amazon.
Buy the Book
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’ storylines intersect?
Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.
The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark….Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree’s decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book’s 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett’s novel plays with its characters’ nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, a spoiled actress.
Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.
‘The Vanishing Half’ Counts the Terrible Costs Of Bigotry And Secrecy
Brit Bennett’s first novel, The Mothers, was the sort of smashingly successful debut that can make but also possibly break a young writer by raising expectations and pressure. Four years later, her second, The Vanishing Half, more than lives up to her early promise. It’s an even better book, more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling. It’s also a great read that will transport you out of your current circumstances, whatever they are.
Spanning nearly half a century, from the 1940s to the 1990s, the novel focuses on twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were raised in Mallard, Louisiana, a (fictional) small town conceived of by their great-great-great grandfather — after being freed by the father who once owned him — as an exclusive place for light-skinned blacks like him. “In Mallard, nobody married dark,” Bennett writes starkly. Over time, its prejudices deepened as its population became lighter and lighter, “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.” The twins, with their “creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair,” would have delighted the town’s founder.
Yet fair skin did not save their father, whose vicious lynching by a gang of white men marks the girls irrevocably. Nor did it save their mother from an impoverished existence cleaning for rich white people in a neighboring town, and it won’t save the twins from an equally constricted life if they stay in Mallard. We learn in the first few pages that at 16, Desiree and Stella ran off to New Orleans, two hours away, but “after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”
Book Club Questions
1. Let’s start with what the title means in the context of the story: Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up identical and,as children, inseparable. Later, they are not only separated, but lost to each other, completely out of contact. What series of events and experiences leads to this division and why? Was it inevitable, after their growing up so indistinct from each other?
2. When did you notice racks between the twins begin to form? Do you understand why Stella made the choice she did? What did Stella have to give up, in order to live a different kind of life? Was it necessary to leave desiree behind? Do you think Stella ultimately regrets her choices? What about Desiree?
3. Stella thinks that becoming a white person means an easier life. Maybe it is as far as money due to Blake’s job but she’s never quite herself. Desiree dealt with horrible abuse but once she gets away, she’s content with Early and loves her daughter. Do you think desiree ended up having the better life?
4. Consider the various forces that shape the twins into the people they become, and the forces that later shape their respective daughters. In the creation of an individual identity or sense of self, how much influence do you think comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, education? Which of these are mutable and why? Have you ever taken on or discarded aspects of your own identity?
5. What do you think about the reunion between Desiree and Stella? Why didn’t Stella stay longer?
6. Kennedy is born with everything handed to her, Jude with comparatively little. What impact do their relative privileges have on the people they become? How
does it affect their relationships with their mothers and their understanding of home? How does it influence the dynamic between them?
7. The town of Mallard is small in size but looms large in the personal
histories of its residents. How does the history of
this town and its values affect the twins and their parents; how does it affect
“outsiders” like Early and later Jude? Do you understand why Desiree decides to return there as an adult? What does the depiction of Mallard say about who belongs to what communities, and how those communities are formed and enforced?
8. What did you think about the ending? Were you happy to see Desiree finally leave Mallard?