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Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Hats off to my book club gals-they’ve done it again! A well-timed read for Black History Month, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was a thrilling and thought-provoking novel.

The raw power of this book is anything but fleeting. Bennett’s prose is truly captivating, and belongs beside the very best of the Southern literary tradition. Even though much of the book takes place around the country-from Los Angeles to Washington D.C.-the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana has an inescapable gravity that clings to all of its current and former inhabitants. The cast is populated with characters who are at once familiar and unique, and the plot traces its way between protagonists, locations, and time periods in a way that demands attention to detail, but is oh-so-rewarding.

Beginning in the 1950s and ending in the 1990s in their close-knit African American community, the story traces the parallel lives of twins Desiree and Stella Vignes. After running away from home as teenagers, Desiree eventually returns, daughter Jude in tow, to rebuild her life after fleeing an abusive relationship. Stella, after accepting a sought-after secretarial position, begins passing as a white woman, and later marries her white employer. Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, has no idea about her mother’s family history until a chance meeting with Jude leads to a reckoning for all.

The motif of the “vanishing half” is deftly woven into each individual narrative:

Desiree grieves for her missing twin acutely, even decades after Stella voluntarily disappeared from her life.

Stella lives in terror that her identity as an African American woman will be revealed and disrupt her carefully curated life in a wealthy white community.

Their mother, Adele, has to find the strength to carry on despite loss after loss- her husband’s lynching, her daughters’ disappearance, and finally her memory impairment as a result of dementia.

Jude feels conflicted at the loss of a relationship with her doting father, while trying to reconcile the sometimes violent nature she knew he possessed.

Reese, Jude’s boyfriend, struggles to feel comfortable in his skin and allow himself to be loved, worried that his former identity will drive Jude away.

Kennedy is desperate to find fulfillment on an unconventional career path after a childhood of stuffy privilege, and to connect with her guarded mother.

This is a novel about transformation and acceptance that seeks to answer some of life’s most crucial questions with honesty and tenderness. The author navigates complex issues of racial and gender identity, sexuality and self-expression, classism and colorism, giving the reader multiple lenses through which to view the kaleidoscope of history. Bennett asks us to consider both what we lose when we are true to ourselves, and what we gain.

If you’re looking for something eye-opening and devastating and charming and challenging and wholesome, this is it.

Y'all, I cannot say enough good things about this book. Looking to pick up a copy today?

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Stay well, and Happy Reading!

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