The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a stunning, unforgettable read that is absolutely worth the wait. It examines public and private identity, secrets, freedom and family. The book begins in the 1960s with the story of twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, two beautiful girls who you wouldn’t know were black if you didn’t meet them in their small, Louisiana hometown of Mallard. While all of the residents are black, they are all light. That lightness is celebrated and embraced as superior to darker skin.
The twins are pulled out of school at 16 to help their mother by working and paying bills. They see a life of work, marriage and children stretching ahead of them. The two leave to seek a different destiny in New Orleans and their paths diverge. Stella takes a good job in a department store usually only offered to white girls, because they don’t ask if she’s Black. When Stella meets a white man, she chooses to keep her secret, leading her to a life far away from her twin and her roots. Meanwhile, Desiree moves to Washington, D.C. She works as a fingerprint analyst and marries a dark-skinned black man. In time, her marriage becomes abusive and violent, so she escapes to her home town to live with her mother.
It would be easy for the reader to take sides, and for the author to paint Stella as one-dimensional, selfish and cold, leaving her family behind. Instead Bennett lets us inside Stella’s head and life. You can see how she fell into the trap of isolation and lies that bind her to a false life.
Of course, the choices Desiree and Stella made shaped the lives of their daughters. Stella has a blond daughter, Kennedy, who grows up with all of the privileges whiteness and money provide. While Desiree’s daughter, Jude, is so dark she is called “blueblack.” Jude does not fit in, a dark outsider in the town her grandfather founded. She finds solace in books and education, and takes an opportunity to get out by attending college in California.
In a compelling counterpart to the story of the twins, Jude meets and falls in love with Reese, a trans man. Like Stella, Reese chose to leave his past and his family behind to be his true self. While Jude seeks to understand why and how Stella cut herself off from her family, she also considers Reese’s actions, as well as other friends in the queer community who lay low or play a part to avoid persecution or exclusion.
The Vanishing Half is told with compassion for all of the characters, and though the themes of the book are serious, I found it impossible to put down. The ending is uplifting and hopeful, as the younger generation strides into a future founded on truth. I cried several times while reading this book, but the tears at the end were the happy kind.
If you’re waiting for your copy, here are some titles to keep you busy. If you read The Vanishing Half and loved it, you might enjoy these books on similar themes.
Passing by Nella Larsen
This slim novel was written in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance, but it raises questions and explores issues that are still relevant today. Irene Redfield is a light-skinned black woman. She’s married to a black physician, they have two sons and they live in Harlem. During a trip home to Chicago, she encounters an old friend named Clare Bellew. Clare chose to live as a white woman and she is married to a racist white man. When Clare visits Irene in New York, Irene observes how Clare’s choice has changed her personality. Being white has empowered Clare with an ease and confidence that Irene cannot claim. Irene resents Clare’s betrayal of their shared heritage, but she protects her secret. The novel brilliantly explores the concept of identity as a social construct. It does not attempt to answer the questions it raises for the reader. Short, powerful and worth a read.
White Like Her by Gail Lukasik
This is perhaps the perfect nonfiction companion to The Vanishing Half. White Like Her is the true story of the author’s discovery that her mother chose to pass as white and the author’s journey after discovering the truth. Lukasik traces her family line back to 18th century Louisiana. She explores how her mother hid her secret for so many years. Lukasik attempts to understand her mother’s decision in the context of the society in which she lived. The book may give you a better understanding of the pressures faced by Black citizens of the Jim Crow era. Some of these people saw passing as possible way out if they were willing to leave and never look back. Available instantly on Hoopla as an ebook or audiobook.
A Chosen Exile by Allyson Vanessa Hobbs
Hobbs offers an in-depth exploration of the history of racial passing in America. As the title indicates, it is a history of loss. People choosing to leave behind the life they had known to find freedoms lacking in their lives as Black citizens. Passing meant escaping slavery initially, then a way of seeking opportunity in education or career while avoiding violence, poverty and racism. Passing always meant a split identity. For many who chose to leave behind community, family and culture, the price was too high.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
This book is a National Book Award finalist, a Stonewall Honor and a Tiptree Award winner. Sam is a bacha posh — a child assigned female at birth selected to live as a boy until puberty, to help parents who did not have any male children. Sam feels right as a boy and has no desire to go back to being considered female. His friend Miel grows roses from her wrist. Sam brought her home after she appeared in a water tower. Just as their friendship begins to turn to more, a set of witchy sisters decide to leverage the secrets of Miel’s past and Sam’s gender identity to get what they want. Magical realism, Pakistani traditions, Spanish phrases and luminous prose make this teen novel a stand-out story you’ll want to savor. Like The Vanishing Half this story explores questions of identity, love and family bonds.
Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik
Authenticity and secrets are a big theme of this gem. The book shares the story of five women who come together in the late 1960s to form a book club. Each chapter ends with a letter from Faith to her mother. Each woman in the group plays her role, but it is only Faith who truly acting. Readers learn early in the book that Faith is not who she appears. She was raised in poverty by a single mother, an alcoholic who neglected Faith and slept around constantly. Faith feels out of place in her nice neighborhood with her pilot husband, among women married to doctors and lawyers. She puts on a false front and invents a past that makes her feel like she belongs. Like Stella in The Vanishing Half, embracing an identity that is less than authentic takes its toll over time. Faith sees history repeated when her gay son feels forced to hide who he is to be accepted. As the women navigate friendship, marriage, children and the larger social and political context of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, they’ll lean on each other and form unbreakable bonds.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This story considers family secrets and authenticity, with a focus on gender identity. Claude knows from an early age that her gender identity does not match her gender assigned at birth. Five-year-old Claude was born a boy, but loves dressing up, dreams of being a princess, and says when she grows up she wants to be a girl. Her parents are kind and accepting, but they worry about their child being isolated or hurt so they keep Claude’s wishes and identity a secret. Everyone else in the family keeps the secret, too. This mounts pressure and lies, one on top of the other. This is a powerful book about change, family and acceptance. Available instantly on Hoopla in audio.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
There are many reasons why a girl living on the streets of London might find it to her advantage to make others think that she’s a boy. For Mary being a boy created an opportunity to leave her homeless existence behind to become a ship boy. This is a job with guaranteed meals and shelter, and the possibility of a future as a sailor. Mary is smart, works hard, and knows how to handle herself, but the “deception” makes her anxious. As she comes of age it is increasingly hard for her to hide her gender, as well as her feelings for her hammock mate, Jamie. Mary’s story is a rollicking adventure, but it doesn’t shy away from considering the grim realities of life in 18th century London or the perils of existing as female in the world outside London’s borders. I recommend this one in audio, narrated by Katherine Kellgren, available instantly on Hoopla.