It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that to be happy, we must be comfortable in our own skin. Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel The Vanishing Half explores this conundrum in a multi-generational story full of intriguing characters, which sweeps us from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins—pretty but poor—living in a small farm town in Louisiana. Whereas Stella is clever and quiet, Desiree is more wild and impulsive. One day when they’re sixteen, the twins up and disappear to New Orleans, in search of a bigger life. Years later Desiree returns without her sister but with a dark-skinned little girl in tow. This time it’s her daughter who’s made to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
Stella is not the only vanishing act in the story. Another is the sisters’ hometown of Mallard, Louisiana, which doesn’t even exist on a map. The Vignes girls are descendants of the founder, a slave freed by the plantation owner who’d also sired him. The former slave, having inherited a sizeable plot of land and the coloring of his white father, decided to grow a town around him, the lighter-skinned the better. “In Mallard, nobody married dark.” That’s not to say they married white, they just married lighter so that future generations would be “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.” The rub of it is: they don’t gain any tangible benefit, except lightness for lightness sake.
The novel opens in 1968 with Desiree’s return to Mallard, and an omniscient narrator takes us back and forth in time, delving into the sisters’ lives and states-of-mind, as well as the lives of their own daughters, Jude and Kennedy, and the friends, husbands, and lovers who come and go throughout.
In New Orleans, the run-away sisters find menial jobs. One day Stella applies for a job as a secretary. They think she’s white, and she keeps the secret that she’s not. A year later Stella leaves without a goodbye or a forwarding address. A heartbroken Desiree moves to D.C., where she finds work and marries the blackest man she can find. When he turns abusive, she returns to Mallard with eight year-old Jude.
So while this is a story about race and how two sisters cope with colorism and “passing” as white, it’s even bigger than that. It made me, as a white person, think about all the different ways in which people can feel uncomfortable in their own skin and how that in turn affects society. Teenagers taunted by their peers and made to hate their own body image; adults afraid to acknowledge their religious beliefs for a wide spectrum of reasons; grown children disowned by parents for their sexual orientation; a young person who feels like he/she was born the wrong gender; a homeowner who plants a “blue” political sign in his yard when all the other neighborhood signs are “red”–and a different homeowner who plants a “red” sign when all the other signs are “blue”; an unemployed person who can’t find a job; older people with aging faces who question whether they’re still relevant.
The Vanishing Half was published last June and struck a chord. Covid was already destroying lives, and then in May, George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis, which sent Black Lives Matters and its many supporters into the streets. It was further evidence that skin color can get you killed for no good reason. But I’m sure it was also a time when many good policemen–officers who wouldn’t dream of standing on a man’s neck until he stopped breathing–felt uncomfortable in their own skin or their uniforms, which for many is one and the same.
Stella marries her handsome white boss, a young man from a wealthy family. When the story catches up with her again, it’s 1968 and she and her family are living in an upscale gated community near Los Angeles. She’s at a homeowners’ meeting, making a case for why a black family shouldn’t be allowed to move into their neighborhood. The husband’s job as an actor in a hit TV series has made this possible, but Stella is terrified of somehow being found out by her own kind. Times are changing, but having committed to the lie, she feels she can’t go back. Keeping her big secret affects her relationship with her daughter Kennedy, who is born blond and even whiter than she is.
Like her mother Desiree, Jude escapes from Mallard as a young woman, but it’s with a track scholarship to UCLA. There she crosses paths with Kennedy, an aspiring actress, which sets up a collision course between the two halves of the family.
Out here in the real world, the consequences of people being uncomfortable in their own skin are truly awful: self-loathing; hatred of others; suicide; murder; mental illness; an unhealthy democracy. But its opposite is happiness for more people. For me this novel was a great read on its own, but also a reminder that the government can’t fix all our problems. We have to do our part, too, as complicated and difficult as that will be.