Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

27 thoughts on “Book Review: The Vanishing Half”

  1. The Reese/Stella thing strikes me as odd too. Passing as a certain skin colour is very outward-facing. Gender expression is outward-facing, but gender identity is so much more than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I was thinking too! I can see some similarities – depending on the context, both passing as white and transitioning might allow somebody to feel more free…but they’re still not directly comparable. I think in general, I’m bothered by comparisons of two things that have nuanced differences – especially issues as complex as race and gender identity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, it certainly sounds like the author covers a lot of ground and I love books which makes you think. Very sad that the scenes you mention from the 70s and 80s still could take place today. Too many coincidences may make the plot feel implausible, but after having read several Charles Dickens novels, I suppose I can live with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, Bennett packed SO MUCH commentary into this novel! It sounds like you would like this one. It is sad that racism is still alive and well in the US, but I’m glad the novel shows this – a lot of books (especially history textbooks!) talk about racism as though it happened in the past and doesn’t exist in the US anymore D:
      And lol at your Dickens comment! I’ve only ever read one Dickens novel but it DID really on a coincidence to move the plot! I didn’t realize this was common in his novels hahah

      Liked by 1 person

  3. so glad you enjoyed this! Im going to be reading it soon as my library hold is just about to become available πŸ™‚

    I didn’t know that this book featured a trans character as well, so Ill definitely keep my eye out for that as im reading it. also i can totally see why you didn’t like the “coincidences” in the book, especially how they were just pointed out and then glossed over. this happens a lot in shows and movies too, i think. it’s called “lampshading,” where a character or an author will point out something just to get it out of the way but then not actually deal with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy this one too! And I didn’t know about the term “lampshading” – thank you for telling me! I have mixed feelings about it, because I do like when authors acknowledge potential limitations of their work…but sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough to deal with big coincidences (or in other novels, to deal with tropes like “remembering my own birth”).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes! I definitely agree – i think it’s a matter of how big an issue the thing that’s being lampshaded could pose to the plot. sometimes if it’s a minor issue I don’t mind, especially as I tend to be more invested in character than plot anyway. But sometimes if it’s a big deal then it becomes harder to suspend disbelief for the rest of the novel…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I was having trouble articulating what about that passage didn’t sit right with me, but you hit the nail on the head. And thank you teaching me how to better refer to a trans man. I’ve updated that part of this post πŸ™‚

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      1. Oh, I’m glad! I try to pay attention, but I know that identities and names get updated, so while female-to-male trans person was used not long ago, I don’t see it anymore. There is a movie that just came out on Netflix about trans people in Hollywood that I want to watch ASAP. It’s called Disclosure.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I’m glad to see you mostly enjoyed this one, I’m hoping to check it out next month. There’s been so much hype for it lately that it’s good to see a few possible flaws mentioned as well, that helps me adjust my expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is another one really high up on my TBR, and I’m impressed that Bennett is able to pack so much social commentary into this novel. I’m cisgendered myself but what you mentioned about the comparison between being transgender and passing off as white seemed like a clumsy analogyβ€”even ignoring the fact of the comparison being made, I don’t even think the two experiences are remotely similar, aside from the marginalized status of both groups and the discrimination they face. Very insightful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point about the two experience not being comparable aside from both involving marginalization. (And as an aside, it does rub me the wrong way when someone tries to relate to an identity that isn’t there’s by making a tenuous comparison. It’s like, don’t project your own experience – just listen to the other person!!). But with a couple issues aside, the commentary is great and I hope you like this read!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree about the coincidences! Maybe one could’ve been passed after that it was like, c’mon now.. Mostly, I liked this book, especially the beginning. I could’ve done a little less with learning about Kennedy’s life (like where she went into real estate) and a little more with Desiree’s life (I feel like she really dropped off in the middle). Still, I want to go and read ‘Mothers’ by Bennett as well πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point – Desiree’s story really did drop in the middle!! I would have loved to see more of life from her perspective during the ~15ish years that focus on Stella, Kennedy, & Jude. I hope you like The Mothers! The reviews I’ve seen have been positive overall πŸ™‚

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