book review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Riverhead, 2020

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twins Desiree and Stella, Black girls with very light skin who grow up in a small Louisiana town called Mallard. While they were once inseparable in childhood, as adults they take very different paths — they move away from Mallard at a young age and Desiree has a daughter with a Black man, while Stella passes as white to take a secretary job, then cuts off contact from her family and spends the rest of her life hiding her true heritage from her husband and child (until, of course, a surprise encounter brings everything to a head). 

I think this book does a laudable job at its commentary on racial identity; the problem is, I don’t think it really has anything else going for it. The characters felt underdeveloped, the writing itself was mediocre, huge plot points often hinged on coincidences in a way that didn’t feel sufficiently self-conscious (the coincidences were acknowledged by the narrative, but in a way that felt to me less like ‘I am playing with fate as a deliberate thematic construct’ and more like ‘haha whoops this coincidence is a bit silly, I’m going to comment on how silly it is before anyone else can’), and every time you finally got settled into a particular narrative, the book would lurch ahead in time at nonsensical moments. 

I just got the impression that Bennett was trying to do too much — I think that if you isolate this novel’s core conceit, it could have made for a stunning novella or short story. For a novel, it was juggling too many elements and dropping balls left and right. For example, Desiree’s daughter has a trans partner, and while I assume that this detail was included to frame this story through different axes of oppression, his particular story and identity ultimately felt rather under-examined. When I compare this to something like its fellow Women’s Prize shortlister Transcendent Kingdom which tackles a broad spectrum of topics and coheres them into a single narrative with finesse, The Vanishing Half just feels like a flimsy shadow of what it’s trying to be.

All that said, I think this book absolutely does deserve its large readership, as it examines race through the very specific lens of colorism which I think is largely underrepresented in literature, and I’m glad to have read this. I’m glad that it has touched so many readers. I can’t really bring myself to give it a rating under 3 stars, because I don’t think it deserves that — and I do think its thoughtful approach to racial identity is worth a lot. I just don’t think it’s a particularly well-constructed novel, and I came away from it feeling frustrated and underwhelmed.

11 thoughts on “book review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

  1. I enjoyed reading this book but everyone was mentioning the Passing by Nella Larsen so I’ve bought it and just started reading it. Have you read it ?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have not! I initially wanted to read it before reading this one, but I also was getting impatient and just wanted to finish the Women’s Prize shortlist. Will definitely be reading Passing at some point though!


  2. Hooray, I completely agree! I just read this with book group and it was generally agreed that there’s too much packed into this novel, although many people enjoyed it more than I did. Interestingly, a lot of them mentioned specifically liking the early sections and losing interest later on – I thought it was incredibly slow to start, and would happily have lost the early sections to allow the rest to be explored with more complexity and depth. I did think the chapters where Stella is trying to fit into the white neighbourhood were strong, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Omg I couldn’t agree more—I thought the beginning dragged and Stella’s sections later on were its biggest redeeming factor! I also thought Jude was a much more interesting character than Desiree. I think there’s an argument to be made about how the beginning was ‘stronger’ i.e. more focused and how it started to unravel later on, BUT personally I think without Stella’s POV this would have been 2 stars from me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Overall, I enjoyed this a lot more than you, I think. I did start to lose some interest when the book moved on to the second generation and their relationships because I felt that the core of the story was with the two sisters and what happened between them. I can agree that a shorter, tighter version of that story might have been stronger but I thought what Bennett was trying to do as a whole made for a worthwhile story and, like you, one I’m glad is getting such a large readership.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, absolutely! I can definitely applaud this book even while it fell short for me. I actually found myself more interested in the second generation than the first, because I felt that the first half of the book took eons to get going and I was ready for a change of pace by the time Jude and Kennedy’s story was properly introduced, but yeah, on a bigger structural level I think this book could have been more successful if it had focused solely on the sisters.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s