The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett is a multigenerational story of a black family. Desiree and Stella are identical twin girls born in the 1950s in Mallard, a small town in Louisiana. All the people in Mallard are black but light-skinned. They are distrustful of dark-skinned people, considering themselves better because of the proximity of their skin color to whiteness. It’s a point of accomplishment when the children are lighter colored than their parents, and Stella and Desiree achieved that goal.
This is a summary full of spoilers. If you’d like a review instead, read Book Review of The Vanishing Half.
When the girls were little, they saw their father dragged and shot by a group of white men. They’d accused him of “writing nasty things to a white woman” even though he couldn’t read and write; the more likely reason was to get rid of the competition to their business. They applied their own brand of justice. When he didn’t die from their assault at this house, they stormed the hospital to finish the job. The girls didn’t understand why and were traumatized by this experience. Their comfortable family life was usurped by the loss of their father’s income; he’d been a carpenter. His wife had to take in laundry and clean houses to pay the bills. Even so, the bills stacked up.
Leaving High School
The Vignes family was a proud one, their ancestor having founded the town. Yet, their mother needed help, and when the girls turned 16, she told them they needed to find jobs and would not be returning to school. Stella and Desiree both started working for the Dupont’s. The twins had been two halves of one whole with no secrets between them but their lives started diverging.
Neither girl enjoyed cleaning the Duponts’ house, a house that was grander than they ever imagined, belonging to a white family. While they were working at the Duponts, the husband would corner Stella in the pantry to sexually abuse her.
One day on a trip to town, Stella went to a store and realized that she could pass for white. She enjoyed the thrill but never shared the experience with Desiree.
Given their experience that summer, the girls decided to escape from Mallard. One night, after the Founders Festival in the summer, the girls ran away from home to the city of New Orleans.
In New Orleans, the girls slept on Farah’s floor, a girl from Mallard. Once they saved enough money, they moved to a small place on their own. They were underaged but worked in a laundry, hiding in the bathroom any time there was an inspection by authorities. This went well until Stella lost her job.
Stella lost her job at the laundromat when she almost hurt herself. She was daydreaming about visiting a museum as a white-passing woman and almost caught her hand and hurt it while working. Her inattention cost her the job.
Stella needed to find a new job or she and Desiree wouldn’t be able to afford their place. She saw a job opportunity at a department store in the marketing department. She realized that she had the typing skills necessary for the job but they would not hire a colored girl. Desiree supported her decision to keep her identity secret and apply for the job. Stella did the typing test and filled out the application. Out of a roomful of applicants, she was chosen for the job.
Every day as she rode the tram to work, Stella transitioned from Black Stella to White Stella. She reversed the process on the way home.
The Vanishing Act
One day, Stella simply disappears, leaving Desiree a note saying she needed to make her own way in the world. Desiree looked for her but did not find her.
When Stella left her old life behind, she passed over to the other side, to being white. She moved to Boston with her boss and married him. She told no one of her past, making up an alternate history. She forged a life story where her parents were both dead and she had no family left. She married her boss, Blake Stuart, and kept her secret.
Stella had one daughter, Kennedy. Kennedy had blond hair and blue eyes, keeping her mother’s secret safe. They lived in a whites-only neighborhood and when a black family moved in across the street from the Stuarts, Stella was scared that her background would be discovered, that the black people would be able to tell she was passing.
Stella overacted the first time she saw Kennedy playing with the black neighbor, Cindy. She grabbed Kennedy home and spoke of Cindy with a racist slur. Later, she realized she had overreacted and brought a cake over to the neighbors. She and the wife created a kind of friendship and the girls liked to play together. She hid that she was spending time with the black wife, Loretta, from her husband but her neighbors noticed and revealed this to him during her Christmas party. However, the Black family soon moved after Kennedy called Cindy by the slur she had heard her mother say.
Ironically, Loretta was the one who inspired Stella to go back to school. Stella had wanted to study at Howard but never finished high school. Although she dismissed the idea when Loretta first mentioned it, she later recalled the advice and chose to go back to school to study Mathematics. Then she also started teaching classes and even contemplated further studies.
Wanting to escape the memory of her sister, Desiree accepted a job in D.C. with the agency reading fingerprints. She got the job despite being a colored woman. At work, she met a Black man, Sam, who was a lawyer and they got married. They had a child Jude who looked like her father and nothing like her mother. Although Sam first hit Desiree three years after they were married, it would take some time before she ran away from him, fearing for her life, and returned to Mallard. It had been fourteen years and she’d never been back.
Desiree’s Return to Mallard
Desiree settled into her mother’s house, promising her daughter that they would leave soon even though that was a lie. Back in Mallard, Desiree met Early, a boy she’f had a crush on as a girl while he was visiting one summer; her mother distrusted him because of his dark complexion. Early is a PI and bondsman and had been hired by Sam to find Desiree. Seeing the bruises on Desiree’s neck, Early told Sam he couldn’t find her, that she had left New Orleans.
Desiree and Early started a romance. Over many years, he’d come and go, visiting Mallard for days at a time to spend time with her. Eventually, he started staying at the Vignes home when he visited. Then, when Adele, Desiree’s mother, fell sick with Alzheimer’s, he stopped moving around and found a stationary job. Desiree worked at the only diner in town, Lou’s, a job that she found soon after returning to Mallard.
The Next Generation
Jude did not like living in Mallard. She had no friends and the other kids made fun of her color. She remembered how her father hurt her mother but she missed him and loved him. She missed her home in D.C.
Jane escaped from Mallard with a track scholarship to UCLA. There, she fell in love with Reese. He was transgender and trying to make enough to have surgery.
Jude and Reese have a strong intimacy and love that grows over time. Both of them were new to romantic love. Jude’s only previous experience was with a boy who would meet her in the stables at night but not acknowledge her in the daytime. Early put a stop to that when he caught her sneaking out one night. He told her that a boyfriend should meet her in the house not in secret at night.
Jude and Kennedy Meet
Jude went to UCLA on a track scholarship. One night, she met Kennedy while bartending at a party; Kennedy was a guest. Jude dropped a wine bottle when she saw Stella enter the party, resulting in her being fired. After that, Jude wondered if she had really seen Stella or someone else and she looked out for her around Los Angeles.
Jude next saw Kennedy at a play. She volunteered at the theater to try to see Stella again. She waited and watched for weeks, and when she finally met Stella, she introduced herself and told Stella that her family missed her. Stella did not behave as expected; she did not want to be found. Stella stormed off in a daze.
Later that night, Kennedy told Jude that attractive boys like Reese did not stay with girls like her. Hurt, Jude lashed out and told her about her mother’s background.
Kennedy Confronts Stella
Kennedy asked her mother about what Jude said; her mother lied and said it wasn’t her. Even though Kennedy knew this wasn’t true, she let it go. She remembered her mother once told her where she was from; she no longer remembered the name of the place but knew it started with M. For years, her mother denied ever having told her this and she could never find the place on a map. When Jude said the name Mallard, Kennedy recognized it.
Jude moved to Minneapolis for medical school. Then on a trip to NY for Reese’s surgery, she noticed Kennedy performing off-off Broadway. Kennedy’s career had never really taken off on the stage; her longest role was still to come working for 3 years on a soap opera.
Jude gave Kennedy her phone number. At the time, Kennedy was dating a black man. They had little in common and he had dated many white women before her although he was her first black man. She talked about being part black with him but he never took her seriously. When she met up with Reese and Jude, she realized they were still in love and envied them. She spent some time with them and Jude gave her a photo of the twins at their father’s funeral.
In that meeting, Jude says to Kennedy of Mallard, “They only like light Negroes out there. You’d fit right in”. In response, Kennedy says “I’m not a Negro”. She goes on to explain that her father’s white and finishes with “And you don’t get to tell me what I am.”
Kennedy Moves On
Kennedy left her boyfriend one day without goodbyes and no backward glance. She travelled home with the photo from Jude and confronted her mother who continued to lie to her. Kennedy decided to escape for a while, taking a year to travel to Europe and around.
Stella did not hear from Kennedy for a while and blamed Jude. She thought that Jude might be able to get Kennedy to get in touch with her. She also wanted Jude to leave Kennedy alone. She decided to visit Mallard while her husband was away on a trip to Boston. The name of Mallard had changed although not much else.
Back in Mallard, the twins reunited for one day. Adele had Alzheimer’s but instantly recognized Stella. In time, she didn’t remember Desiree and called her Stella.
The twins filled each other in on their lives. Desiree realized that her sister wasn’t coming home; her visit was all about protecting the life she had created. They went to bed sleeping in their childhood beds. Early heard Stella sneaking out the next morning and drove her to the train station. She gave him her engagement ring to sell to help care for her mother and returned to her life.
Life Carries On
Stella returned to her husband and her white life. She said her ring had fallen down the drain at work; her husband told her she was due for an upgrade and had a new ring custom-made.
Eventually, Kennedy ran out of money from her acting days. It was time to come home. She called her parents and her mother picked her up. During the span of 11 miles of Los Angeles traffic, Stella finally answered Kennedy’s questions. She told her that she would answer all her questions and they would not talk about it again, especially not in the house where Blake might overhear.
Maman Adele’s Death
At school one day, Jude gets the call that her grandmother has died. She and Reese went to the funeral.
Jude and Kennedy stayed in touch although they were never really friends. Jude called to tell Kennedy of her grandmother’s death, a grandmother she had never known. Jude wondered if Stella would want to know but Kennedy was sure she would not.
After the funeral, Early and Desiree sold the house and moved to Houston. Early found work at a refinery and Desiree at a call center. She was good at cold calling people, recognizing that many people are lonely and happy to chat on the phone.
The Ending or The Vanishing Half
The story weaves back and forth in time. In the final scene, Reese and Jude escape from Adele’s funeral and go skinny dipping in the river. “They floated under the leafy canopy of trees, begging to forget.”
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