Over the course of this pandemic, my reading habits have accelerated; whereas I was typically reading 1-3 books a month while working full time, once I was laid off, I began reading a book or two a week. Thus, I have found myself fervently paging through books, in an attempt to both escape reality and experience simulated companionship. Reading has often been my preferred coping mechanism, and thankfully I have been able to do so much of it lately!
Out of the many books I’ve read the past couple months, one particularly stands out: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. When people ask me my favorite recent read, I almost always respond with this book!
This tale of twin sisters Desiree and Stella is told with excellent care. At the age of sixteen, they leave their peculiar hometown of Mallard and begin again in New Orleans—until Stella vanishes. Their fates now fork in different directions, as Desiree and Stella each make their own choices.
As Bennett expertly shapes this story over the span of 1968 to 1986, she presents the reader with a narrative layered with themes of identity, transformation, the masks we wear, and how others treat us depending on what they perceive, as well as the dangers of colorism, racism, and generational suffering.
For me, this book hit the mark precisely. I was emotionally attached to the characters, the pacing was effortless, and the writing was exquisite. If you haven’t read this book, I so highly recommend it, and if you have read it, then continue to read this article, which will now offer an in-depth analysis of specific themes and contain spoilers in the process.
Identity and Transformation
Perhaps one of the most prominent themes throughout this book is that of the double identity, which is expressed through the lives of various characters, most notably through Stella.
Desiree and Stella—identical twins, seemingly inseparable sisters—are seen as two halves of a whole to the rest of their hometown Mallard. They understand themselves in relation to one another, existing in a state of subconscious constant comparison.
Yet, the twin’s relationship is fractured in New Orleans when Stella detaches herself from her coupled identity with Desiree and splits her identity once more: she is now both Black Stella in private and White Stella at work—a version of Stella with no family, no friends, no past.
In New Orleans, Stella split in two.
She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree.Page 183
Although Stella only makes minor adjustments to her appearance, the world sees her as though she is transformed based on the way she presents herself; however, it is less a transformation as it is a clever facade, borne out of necessity. “She was living a performance where there could be no audience,” Bennett writes on page 187, “Desiree could never meet Miss Vignes. Stella could only be her when Desiree was not around.”
Stella at this point is torn between her two identities: her existence as a Black woman, twin of Desiree, and her typing job as a white woman, which offers monetary and social advancement. When her boss, Blake Sanders, begins flirting with her, Stella enjoys this new sensation—being the object of a handsome white man’s genuine crush. With Blake, life has so much potential, yet with Desiree, Stella knows that it will only be hard work and continuing to scrape by due to the discrimination she faces as a Black woman. In a definitive act of survival, Stella chooses to erase part of herself and commit to a life of feigning whiteness—which will not be an easy route for Stella, either.
Doubtless, pretending to be white has its societal advantages. Later, in a conversation with Desiree, Stella says that she made this decision because she liked who she was with Blake; when Desiree remarks, “White,” Stella responds, “No. Free.” Desiree laughs, “Same thing, baby” (pages 319-320). Based solely on how other people interpret her race, Stella experiences a totally different life. We see the stark difference in treatment when new neighbors Reginald and Loretta Walker move into Blake and Stella’s mostly-white neighborhood; when word spreads that a Black family is moving in, the Homeowner’s Association holds a meeting to discuss “what they ought to do” about this (page 145). Stella herself speaks out at the meeting, “You must stop them… If you don’t, there’ll be more and then what? Enough is enough!” (page 146). (It ought to be mentioned here that the prejudice depicted in scenes like this has real, historical context in America. White neighborhoods have a long legacy of legally and illegally driving Black families out of rightfully purchased houses.)
The way that Stella can be so automatically accepted among white housewives when she pretends she’s white illustrates how drastically different society can treat people based on the side of themselves they show, which illustrates the toxicity of colorism and racism—that Stella will hate and suppress her Blackness and unique heritage because of white supremacy’s reign. Stella often says outwardly racist remarks to Blake and Kennedy in order to distance herself from the very people from whom she came. She must constantly reject this entire facet of her own identity and actively convince the world that she is white; for if she were discovered to be Black, this one fact would likely outweigh everything else that her loved ones know of her and she would lose her own constructed identity once again. Fearfully, she clutches whiteness towards her like a strand of pearls and casts Blackness aside like a ticking time bomb.
Perhaps this burden of secret identity is so heavy that Stella passes this on to her daughter Kennedy Sanders, who struggles with discovering her own true identity. She transforms before Stella’s eyes, metamorphosing from innocent child to confused young woman.
In the mornings, [Stella] stared across the breakfast table at a child she no longer recognized. Gone was her sweet-faced girl, and in her place, a tawny, long-limbed woman who changed her mind daily about the person she wanted to be…
“Why can’t you just be yourself” Stella asked once.
“Maybe I don’t know who that is,” her daughter shot back. And Stella understood, she did. That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone.Page 227
Kennedy shares with her mother this inclination towards transformation, yet Kennedy can shuffle through her options with much less regard for consequence. “Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before,” Bennett adds (page 227). Although, while Stella created her own identity as a youth, Kennedy is almost frenzied, or restless, about her identity. She has grown up incredibly privileged to have many things handed to her, and yet feels none the happier. She shirks her mother’s expectations for her, and as an adult, lives as an aspiring actress. Kennedy loves performing on stage because she can be anyone she wants to, and she is often described as “transforming” under the spotlight (page 246). As a reader, I got the sense that despite that Kennedy is theoretically playing a role each time she acts, that’s when she removes most of her masks and allows some vulnerable, true part of herself to shine through.
However, on top of this, Kennedy’s whole understanding of her own identity becomes flipped when Jude exposes her mother, and Kennedy discovers that part of her identity is Black. Yet Kennedy struggles to identify with this part of herself, and Bennett writes that Kennedy even begins to doubt its truth, viewing it as a sort of joke.
She would know, [Kennedy] decided. You couldn’t go through your whole life not knowing something so fundamental about yourself. She would feel it somehow. She would see it in the faces of other blacks, some sort of connection. But she felt nothing.Page 275
With this, we are forced to ask: What defines who we are—what we are, or what we know of ourselves? Is our identity permanently tied to how we grew up seeing ourselves, seeing the world? “She just hated the idea of anyone telling her who she had to be,” Bennett writes of Kennedy. “She was like her mother in that way” (page 296). Although Kennedy is quick to reject anyone else’s assumptions of her, she is also the first to question who she truly is. But perhaps this is one of the freedoms of being white, constantly being able to re-define herself like a chameleon: “She was always inventing her life” (page 299).
Meanwhile, Jude is not afforded such a luxury. From her earliest days, she is labeled with names such as “tar baby” and “darky” (page 83). To the world, Jude is not Jude; she is “mudpie.”
[Jude had] always known that it was possible to be two different people in one lifetime, or maybe it was only possible for some. Maybe others were just stuck with who they were. She’d tried to lighten her skin once, during her first summer in Mallard.Page 105
As Desiree’s daughter, Jude has always known stories of her aunt, the vanishing sister; however, while “passing over” is possible for Desiree and Stella, no such option exists for Jude. Her identity is set in stone—or rather, the facet of her identity that society sees. For this reason, or perhaps in spite of this, Jude is determined to create her own destiny, and she pursues her passion of studying medicine successfully.
Jude’s transformation is from self-doubt to self-empowerment, as she leaves behind Mallard and its toxic hatred of Blackness to live in larger cities like Los Angeles which are more accepting, and during her years, she also witnesses many transformations in others; Jude watches Kennedy transform on stage, but she also observes the transformations of her partner Reese and beloved friend Barry.
Like it is for Jude, Los Angeles is an opportunity for Reese to have a new life—a life that Reese has always wanted. On his journey from home town El Dorado, Reese alters his appearance to reflect what he has felt inside; when describing how Reese left his given identity behind, Bennett writes, “The truth was that he’d always been Reese… It was Therese who felt like a costume. How real was a person if you could shed her in a thousand miles?” (page 103). Whereas Stella changes her appearance to obscure her true identity, Reese alters his exterior to reflect who he truly is, and Jude loves and supports Reese on this journey. (Their relationship is everything to me!!) Reese says to Jude reassuringly one tender moment:
“I ain’t those people back home. Sometimes you act like you’re still back there. But you’re not, baby. We’re new people here.”—Reese, page 133
At times, Reese even jeopardizes his health in order to wane closer to his true identity, scavenging for shots of steroids and even traveling to New York City in order to receive top surgery. Jude and Reese’s transformations are certainly the most rewarding of the book, because their journeys are both of genuine self-discovery; perhaps for this reason, the novel ends with a scene of them both gleefully stripping their clothing to float in the river, “begging to forget” so that they may move forward, focusing on their own fate’s paths (page 343). These two characters offer an image of hope and love which may be attained when we connect with who we each must be.
On somewhat of a different level, Barry is another character who transforms when he performs; he becomes Bianca, a version of himself portrayed as a gaudy white woman. In describing his pre-performance ritual, Bennett writes that he always says, “I have to get in my zone” and that a “veil” seems “to drop before his face” as he prepares for the stage (page 218). There is something magical to Barry—like there is to Kennedy—about showing the world a carefully constructed front. Yet again, as it was with Kennedy, we must wonder: Is the performance a mask, or is the performance their soul’s hidden truth?
Even Early Jones dabbles in wearing his own masks; as a bounty hunter, he has years of experience pretending to be someone else in order to gain specific information about clientele.
You could find just about anybody if you were good at lying, [Early] told her. Half of hunting was pretending to be somebody else, an old friend searching for his buddy’s address, a long-lost nephew trying to find his uncle’s new phone number…Page 82
In one scene while Desiree and Early are searching for clues about Stella’s disappearance, he instructs Desiree how to act white, which is to more or less present a confident facade. Astounded that she is able to pull off this ruse, Desiree realizes, “All there was to being white was acting like you were” (page 75). However, unlike Stella, Desiree rarely again uses this “power” of hers.
The novel comes full circle when, after the twins’ lifetime together and lifetime apart, their mother—descending into the clutches of Alzheimer’s while Desiree and Early care for her—only remembers one daughter’s name: Stella (page 340). Desiree’s identity had been sewn to Stella’s her whole life, even though they’d hardly been reunited a single time since they were sixteen years old; yet, at the end, because Desiree is the daughter who chose to embrace her identity, she is the one taking care of Adele, the daughter who must zip up her identity with Stella’s and provide comfort to her deluded, aging mother. To provide peace for the old woman, Desiree accepts this “mask” Adele bestows upon her, and Bennett writes of Desiree as Stella, “Stella climbed into bed with her, wrapping her arms around her” (page 340). For perhaps the final time, Desiree and Stella bleed into one identity. (Still crying about this scene, by the way.)
These are just a few of the examples of how characters throughout The Vanishing Half explore identity and transformation, presentation and performance. To me, it is masterful how Bennett incorporated so many complex expressions and the struggles associated with each. While it is difficult to discern whether or not it was “right” for Stella to pass over into whiteness, it seems clear that it was not without ample burden; the identities and trauma we experience seem to pass on throughout generations, and so perhaps the best thing anyone can do is to reconcile with their own identity, whatever that may mean for each individual.
Thanks for reading.
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