✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication year: 2020
Content warnings: Domestic abuse, racism, lynching, trauma, death of a parent, transphobia, sexual assault of a minor.
Identitcal twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, are inseparable as children but break apart and take different paths as adults – one living as a black woman and the other a white woman. In this multi-generational tale, we follow the Vignes sisters on a journey of love, loss and family.
What I liked
- The emphasis on family and family dynamics
- Writing style
- Exploration of race and racism
What I disliked
- The lack of detail on certain topics
- The ending
- How surface-level and unsatisfying a lot of the plot points and arcs felt
- The lack of development of some of the main characters
Plot and Structure
Spanning 50 years from the 1940s to the 1990s, the book primarily focuses on Desiree and Stella and their families across three generations. The story opens with the return of Desiree to her Southern hometown, Mallard, after running away with her twin Stella at age 16. It’s then divided into sections by date and pieces together the events leading up to and after Desiree and Stella leave Mallard. Since this is a historical, literary fiction it isn’t particularly plot heavy and is focused on family drama with emphasis on the impact of racism on Desiree and Stella’s lives. It was rather slow paced, but engaging throughout because of how authentic the characters and their struggles felt.
The exploration of white passing was particularly fascinating. Stella’s ongoing struggle between her true identity as a black woman internally and a white woman externally was palpable. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the difficult choices she made to live the life she wanted and the sacrifce that went with those choices. Her character contrasted perfectly with Desiree who chose to live as a black woman and endure the discrimination, inequality and struggle that went with that.
Unfortunately, there was something missing within the story; a depth and emotionality that it just fell short of. There were so many interesting and important themes – racism, white passing, classism, transgenderism – but it only breezed past them. It felt like there were so many conversations between the characters that were omitted, details left out and the impact of certain events not fully explored. By the end, I was underwhelmed by the anti-climax of the sisters reunion and felt that a lot of what had been building was left by the wayside.
Structurally, I did find it a bit odd. Despite being divided into sections based on date, it wasn’t chronological and flashbacks were scattered througout which seemed to undermine the timeline. I love flashbacks in my books and liked how the flashbacks provided deeper insight into the characters and their past, but it did conflict a little with the timeline structure, in my opinion.
This is the first book of Brit Bennett’s that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. Her writing style is beautiful. She’s able to craft a vivid setting and write complex, relationships and characters. The detail she provides is focused on the human aspect of the characters; their emotions, experiences and perceptions. Her use of dialogue is well chosen to represent each character, which is particularly effective in a story such as this which examines race and has both Southern and Northern American characters. The manner of speaking and colloquialism of certain characters reflected their geographical, racial and class background. However, I did feel that her writing focused a lot on experience and this resulted on some aspects of the narrative and characters not resonating with me as much as they could’ve.
There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.
Characters and Relationships
There was a good representation with the cast of characters. It was particularly refreshing to see a depiction of a trans character. The minor characters were interesting and time was taken to develop unique minor characters which I appreciated. However, the main characters weren’t the strongest. Desiree was the most complex and developed main character, but the rest of the characters never felt fully realised. I don’t really feel like I know any of the characters. I also felt that certain characters like Kennedy (Stella’s daughter) didn’t go beyond stereotypes.
However, the relationships were fantastic and probably my favourite aspect of the book. The romantic relationships were refreshing, understated and authentic, but the family relationships are what stole the show. The relationships are so complex; they’re fraught with tension, secrecy, pain, betrayal and hurt, but beneath that there’s love. There was acknowledgement of the dilemma between the family we are born into and our chosen family. Despite how family centric the book was, I liked that family wasn’t portrayed as something that was easy or a given. Love between families doesn’t always overcome hardships and sometimes people will choose themselves above the duty and obligation they have for their family. Generally, the relationship between Desiree and Stella was thought provoking and encompassed a lot of the conflict that can exist between siblings when they’re fundamentally different and want to establish themselves outside of that sibling relationship.
The Vanishing Half is a wonderful, multi-generational family drama which captures the struggles of race, identity and family. The writing style is captivating and does justice to the heavy themes that are explored. Although the book fell short for me in regards to characters and the way in which certain plot threads and topics were brushed over, it was engaging and thought-provoking throughout. It’s a valuable read and the commentary around family and identity resonated with me on a personal level.
I’d recommend The Vanishing Half if:
You’re looking for a slow-paced family-centric historical novel which examines race in 1940s America.
Have you read The Vanishing Half or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.