Are you a twin? I remember feeling envious of twins growing up. I felt like they had an almost supernatural connection, and I thought the idea of having a person who looked just like me would be wonderful.
Of course, my interpretation of twin life is tainted with rose-colored glasses. And while the joys of being a twin are not the major theme of this novel, the twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are the key to everyone’s lives in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
According to her website, this book is about twins who choose to live different lives – one as a black woman and one as a white woman.
The twins are born in Mallard, Louisiana. This is a fictional town where all the people are Black but with very light colored skin. So much so that they even shun those who are darker in skin color. This is a fictional place but the author based it off of memories from her mother, who lived in Palmetto, Louisiana.
In an interview with the LA Times, Ms. Bennett stated, “‘She brought it up the way parents often do, like it’s something everybody knew … that there were towns where people would intermarry so that their children would get lighter with each generation.'” This became the inspiration for Mallard.
The book begins with Desiree returning home to Mallard.
The twins had run away at the age of 16, and this was the first time that either had returned. But Desiree was not alone; she walked down the main street holding the hand of a dark-skinned little girl, her daughter Jude. Her return was a shock to the little town, but her daughter was even more of one.
We learn that the Desiree and Stella’s father was lynched when they were young. Their mother raised them and due to lack of income, they were forced to drop out of high school and work with her cleaning houses. They decided that they needed to run away, to get out of the oppressiveness and lack of opportunity in Mallard. They head to New Orleans to start new lives.
It is here where the girls ultimately split. We learn that one day, Stella went to her job as a secretary at the Maison Blanche and never returned.
What happened to the twins? What made Stella disappear?
The novel hops from decade to decade and between different character’s perspectives. We meet Early, a bounty hunter that was tasked to find Desiree after she left her abusive husband in Washington D.C. He glimpses the bruises on her neck and decides to hide her appearance in Mallard, and the two continue a relationship for the rest of the novel.
Early tries to find Stella for Desiree in the early years. He gets as far as her job at the Maison Blanche, and then the trail disappears. While heartbreaking for Desiree and their mother, they leave it alone. Yet Stella’s presence looms largely over everyone’s lives, including Jude.
Desiree’s daughter accepts a track scholarship to UCLA, and she makes her own way in California. She meets a young man named Reese, who left Arkansas as Therese and is transgender. He is saving for surgery and living as best he can, given the time (the 1970s), and Jude falls in love with him. She wants to support and help him, so she takes a job at a catering company.
It is at work, at a wealthy retirement party, that she glimpses her long-lost aunt.
Stella had received her job at the Maison Blanche by “passing” as a white woman. It works, and when she falls in love with her boss, she decides to live this way permanently. We discover that this is why she left and never returned; why there was not a single letter or call over the decades.
It seems impossible that a dark-skinned niece would find her wealthy, light-skinned aunt in Los Angeles. And when confronted with the truth, no one in the family knows quite how to handle it.
Brit Bennett weaves in sympathy for all involved as we question everyone’s choices, especially Stella’s. Her choice and lies are proof that skin color did (and still does) matter in how one can shape their life. She is so terrified of losing all that she has from her “privilege” and her lies that she is racist herself. Can you believe in a lie so much that you become it wholly?
What would life had been like if the twins had never left Mallard or stuck it through together?
What if Desiree had chosen to follow suit and “pass” as a white woman?
Can the color of skin really matter so much that two identical twins can live nearly opposite lives?
The answer is yes, and even in that life of privilege, there are consequences for the lies.
In the end, all return to Mallard in some way or another. There is so much pain and grief but also growth and acceptance by all characters. The Vanishing Half is a story about twins but more importantly, it is about the choices we make and the lies we choose to believe.
We hope you enjoyed this month’s book as much as we did! Read with us this month as we dive into In Sight of the Mountain by military spouse author Jamie McGillen!