Brit Bennett’s first novel, The Mothers (Riverhead, 2017), offered everything a reader could hope for in a debut: a focused, clear plot, strong character development, and prose that introduced the author as a distinct new voice in the larger literary landscape. A critical and commercial success, The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for a slew of awards. Perhaps the reception of Bennett’s debut adds to the high expectations for the author’s follow-up, The Vanishing Half (Riverhead, 2020). Even so, Bennett’s second novel not only shirks the sophomore slump, but also reinforces her as one of the most important and skilled American writers working today.
The Vanishing Half is an intergenerational story spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, grow up in Mallard, Louisiana—a fictional small town established in 1848 by a former slave named Alphonse Decuir who dreams of “each generation lighter than the one before.” But the twins run away to New Orleans as sixteen-year-olds. The novel opens in 1968, fourteen years later. Desiree has returned home with her daughter, Jude. The people of Mallard describe Jude as “blueblack,” disrupting the community’s ideology of colorism. We learn Stella has left Desiree behind long ago and absconded to Boston with her white boss, Blake. Passing as white, Stella marries Blake and has a daughter, Kennedy. Their family moves to Los Angeles, where a chance encounter eventually brings Jude and Kennedy together and slowly unravels the family’s secrets and history.
There are several reasons this brief summary does not do the novel justice. For one, Bennett’s deft blend of intricate and seismic plotting makes it difficult to adequately cover much ground without messing up the story or slipping in a spoiler. Furthermore, The Vanishing Half is remarkably ambitious in both its achronological structure and its expansive breadth of time and space. Bennett’s ability to jump around freely through several eras in American history, as well as from coast to coast and to the Deep South, is nothing short of exceptional. There is never a moment where the narration feels rushed or scattered; the shifts between characters are organic and seamless.
The novel’s vast scope is a reward for the reader and a testament to Bennett’s craft. From the first line, the author prepares readers for the novel’s rapid time and perspective shifts: “The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.” Some might call this a riff on the Marquez approach, that famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” But it is effective and grounding. The narration is already settled in a reflexive future and echoes back to the garrulous communal voice Bennett deftly implemented in The Mothers.
Visible and invisible aspects of identity are central to Bennett’s character development. Certainly the Vignes twins serve as a central example, because though they are identical, they approach race with polarized perspectives. Desiree embraces her Black identity by first marrying and later forming a lifelong partnership with men who don’t fit Mallard’s many generations’ worth of effort to fully assimilate to whiteness. By contrast, Stella hides her family ancestry at all costs, going so far as to fight to keep her wealthy Los Angeles suburb segregated in fear of being exposed. Having left home as a teenager, Stella spends most of her life in white society. Bennett writes:
“She’d always been a great liar. The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same. Stella never wanted to switch places. She was always certain that they would get caught, but lying—or acting—was only possible if you committed fully.”
Later, Kennedy ironically—and unknowingly—inherits her mother’s interest in acting. She drops out of college to pursue theatre and eventually finds some success in a three-season arc on a soap opera called Pacific Cove. Jude, by this time aware they are cousins, helps during a stage performance early in Kennedy’s career in hopes of meeting and confronting Stella. If Stella and Desiree are identical in appearance but opposite in personality, Jude and Kennedy inherit dramatically different worldviews based on the way their mothers raised them. Over time, Jude and Kennedy both age and change, but they hold onto a clandestine familial connection that takes years to come full circle.
The snapshots across eras are particularly well designed to follow along as the characters change with time and experience. Stella, for example, pushes away from her role as an attentive housewife, despite her husband’s protestations, and returns to school. She is hired as an adjunct professor in statistics, and her mentor encourages her to pursue a Ph.D. Each character is constantly finding and reassessing their place in the world, as well as their thoughts, emotions, and desires. When the narration is furthest from the characters, Bennett takes the opportunity to expand on the fluid nature of how the characters define themselves:
“Time was collapsing and expanding; the twins were different and the same all at once. There could have been fifty pairs of twins sitting at that dinner table, a seat for each person they had been since they’d spoken last: a battered wife and a bored one, a waitress and a professor, each woman seated next to a stranger.”
Bennett’s sound architecture shapes the novel, but it is—as with The Mothers—her complex characters that bring this monumental, sweeping story to life. The Vanishing Half reveals how people change and how they remain the same, but it is more than that: a breaking down of binaries, a reflection on the daily performances one makes to get by, and proof that the lifetime accumulation of our decisions can reify or erase our former selves. It’s a reminder that there’s so much at stake in the ways we treat one another: family, friends, lovers, neighbors, and strangers. There’s little opportunity to go back.