Book Review: The Vanishing Half

One hundred percent, this book was purchased due to the hype it received on socials. The cover is pretty and full of colour, so you know I would be down simply for the cover art. Adding to that, the synopsis had a very interesting plot. 2-3 weeks later, I ran through this book and truth be told if I could read and drive or read and work, I would have done it. Reading this was a breeze! This week on the blog, we’re reviewing Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, check it out.

Synopsis:

This story follows the lives of two identical twins, who grow up in a very small Black community, the Vignes twins are part of Mallard “royalty” as their great grandparents are some of the founding members of the town, but this is not what makes them notorious in the town. They both disappear one afternoon, without a trace at the age of 16 and begin anew in New Orleans. The twins have two very different personalities, Stella being the smart, shy, reserved, fragile one, whereas Desiree is the rebel, the one who doesn’t follow the rules. Yet, while they’re in New Orleans, Stella is the one to disappear and leave Desiree alone and heartbroken. Stella chooses to pretend she is White and leads a life, full of lies and secrets from her husband and daughter and Desiree after escaping her abusive husband, Sam, returns to Mallard with her young daughter, Jude. The book evolves over each character’s lives, how they intersect and the complexities of race and identity.

Characters

Desiree Vignes : Escapes abusive husband and returns home to Mallard
Estelle “Stella” Vignes : Disappears in New Orleans and leads a secret life as a White woman
Adele Vignes : Estelle & Desiree’s mother.
Jude : Desiree’s daughter
Early : Desiree’s high school crush and later on long term partner
Reese : Jude’s partner
Blake Sanders : Stella’s husband
Kennedy Sanders : Daughter of Stella and Blake

You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.

Break it Down:

This book touches on racism, in such a subtle almost gentle way, that I felt made it all the more impactful. Showing the vast differences in both Kennedy & Jude’s lives, how each character is treated based on their race and their status.The mere fact that Stella was fully able to assimilate and be deeply rooted in the life she had built passing as a white woman, and essentially go through any length to ensure the life she built for herself, fully aware that her plight would have been dramatically difference had she not created her lie. I also found it fascinating how each women’s daughter’s were like the other twin, so in many ways though they didn’t have each other, they ended up with a version of their sister in some way. And the fact that Jude and Kennedy grow a distant friendship is really sweet in a way, because it’s not forced, it doesn’t become something deep, but they’re a sort of stable part in each other their lives, which I think can be said often about family.

The premise of Mallard is an interesting one, and I really couldn’t wrap my head around it being a “Black” town, yet they were still so very much focused on being White passing, they would in turn be racist to anyone who was darker in tone. At the beginning of the book, I was very upset that Desiree would be so reckless with her daughter’s feelings, especially knowing she would be ostracized being as dark as she was, and though I know you can’t change people’s thinking. She never seemed concerned about the negative impact that it was having on Jude. On the other hand, Stella being so distant from Kennedy when all she wanted was to be able to find a connection to her mother. Stella’s lie took up so much of her, she couldn’t afford to share any part of herself, let alone her past with Kennedy, for fear that it would expose something she didn’t want revealing. In many ways, this cost her. I found it quite puzzling that it was obvious that Stella’s lie was eating away at her, but after so many years she just wasn’t able to come clean with the truth, especially to her husband. I guess I couldn’t relate to her character in many ways, you would have thought she had it all, a big house, successful and devoted husband, a fulfilling career, yet Stella still felt alone. That the only people who truly knew her were part of a life she wanted nothing to do with, which in turn made me feel sorry for her.

I found it very realistic the fact that the twins never seem to reconnect and ride off into the sunset so to speak, because not every “rift” can be fixed and not everything needs a conclusion so to speak. They both had their own lives and I guess at a certain point- they didn’t need each other. And as long as Stella was willing to continue her lie, then Desiree and Jude could never be in her life, which is sad, but sometimes situations are too far gone to be fixed.

The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.

Book Club Questions:

Q: Let’s first talk about what the title means in the context of this story.
A: I see the title as having a double meaning, the parts of us we hide and eventually vanish from us, but also with Stella living her life as a White woman, essentially denies or erases her Black existence. Especially her clear racism to her own kind, in order to keep up the facade of her lies alive, such was the depth of her constant fear of being “caught”.

Q: What did you think about the relationship between Desiree and Early? How does it differ from Stella and Blake’s?
A: From the outside I’m sure people might look “down” on Desiree and Early’s relationship because they live together but aren’t married and for many years Early came and went as he pleased and Desiree never insisted or attempted to change that about him. Comparing that to Stella and Blake, who clearly also have a loving relationship, but in some ways it’s 1 sided- Blake offered Stella a life she would never have dreamed of, but on the flip side- Blake doesn’t know his real wife. As close as he believes he is to her, she has in many ways never been her true/real self around him, so who he loves is a character of sorts. The irony is that Early was and is able to be his true self, free from judgement and Stella never believes she can be that person.

Q: Let’s talk about the differences between Jude and Kennedy as a result of upbringing and environment.
A: It’s interesting to think about it because Kennedy grows up to be an entitled, spoilt, rich California kid, who in many ways doesn’t really know herself, and maybe that’s a reflection of just how deeply guarded her mother was and this definitely impacted her. On the other hand you have Jude, who in many ways had a tough upbringing with the bullying in her school and essentially being ostracized by the people in Mallard because of how dark she was. But her struggle, became her motivation to be and do better and eventually it was her ticket out of Mallard, but she held a very different perspective from Stella; like Mallard gave her her grit and her drive. Whereas for Stella, Mallard broke her.

Q: 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?
A: Absolutely, if there is such a thing as comparing people’s lives, then for sure Desiree has the better life, they may not be wealthy and it seems like a small and simple life, but they have real, true love (her and Early, her and Adele and her and Jude). She doesn’t live in any fear and she doesn’t worry about what other’s perception of her is. The very opposite can be said about Stella, she is so wrapped-up in outside appearances that she suppresses real parts of herself, and only seems to find it back in a small way when she returns to school and eventually becomes a professor.

Q: What did you think about the ending? Were you happy to see Desiree finally leave Mallard?
A: Though, I think it’s sad that Desiree chose to leave Mallard in many ways, after her mother died, there was nothing keeping her there any longer. Maybe she was able to release some of her past as well and no longer have to wonder about Stella and be safe in the knowledge that Stella wasn’t going to come back, but also she didn’t need to wait for her anymore, because in some ways her returning to Mallard was a reset for Desiree. However, I am sure in some ways she was hoping it would be her and Stella’s reset button to come back to each other, and though it did happen 30 years later, it was a closing of chapters in some ways.

Questions from Book Club Chat

Negatives:

I couldn’t really find any negatives, this book was captivating, it was easy to read and smooth flowing. The storyline was very interesting and the topics it covered were not only relevant but also honest.

Would We Recommend?

Yes! This book wasn’t like anything I’ve read before, but in a good way- it was an easy page turner and was super captivating! Definitely a must read!

The RnR Rating:

4 out of 5.

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