The Vanishing Half Summary
by Brit Bennett

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The Vanishing Half Summary

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a 2020 novel about estranged twins Desiree and Stella Vignes and their daughters, Jude and Kennedy.

  • Desiree and Stella Vignes are raised in Mallard, Louisiana. In 1954, when they are sixteen, they run away from home.
  • Desiree marries, has a daughter, leaves her husband, and returns to Mallard. Stella decides to pass as white, marrying a white businessman and moving to Los Angeles, where she, too, has a daughter.
  • Desiree's daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles, where she meets Stella's daughter, Kennedy. Jude realizes their familial connection, motivating Kennedy to uncover Stella's concealed past.

Summary

The Vanishing Half centers on the story of twins Desiree and Stella Vignes, who are born in the tiny Louisiana village of Mallard in the 1930s. Mallard’s distinction, though the outside world is barely aware of it even as a place on a map, is that it was founded and almost entirely populated by light-skinned Black people. This distinction among degrees of color within the African-American community is a theme that propels much of the story. In some contexts it means everything to be fairer-skinned, but in American society at large it proves to mean far less.

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In 1954, Desiree and Stella, then aged sixteen, run away from home, leaving behind their mother, Adele, who works in a diner. Desiree and Stella have witnessed the lynching of their father, Leon, who is shot in front of his house but initially survives and is taken to the hospital.The lynchers then invade his hospital room and kill him. The pretext was Leon’s allegedly “insulting” a white woman, but in reality the murder was prompted simply by the white group’s objection to the lower prices Leon set for the merchandise in his store—in other words, economic competition was at the root.

The twins have left Mallard not merely because of this traumatic incident, but because at the end of tenth grade their mother has pulled them out of school and put them to work housecleaning for white people. They go to work for the wealthy Duponts, and Mr. Dupont sexually abuses Stella. When the twins escape Mallard, they head for New Orleans, where they obtain jobs in a laundry, but because they are underage, their employment is illegal.

When dismissed from this work, the two go in opposite directions. Desiree goes north, to Washington, D.C., where she obtains a job with the FBI as a fingerprint reader. She meets and marries a man named Sam Winston. Sam is African-American, but Desiree notes that his skin is very dark, unlike that of Desiree and her sister. Sam is a professional man, a lawyer. One would think that Desiree has done well for herself by marrying him. They have a child, a girl they name Jude, who like her father is very dark. But the marriage is unhappy. Sam becomes abusive both verbally and physically. In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the urban turmoil unleashed in its aftermath, Desiree takes Jude and leaves Sam, returning to Mallard without leaving him any word as to where she has gone.

Stella has taken a different course—that of “passing,” or presenting herself as a white person. It was a matter of choice, and Desiree could have done the same thing if she had wished. Stella applies for a job at the New Orleans department store Maison Blanche (the “White House”), becomes the secretary to a man named Blake Sanders, and eventually marries him and moves to Los Angeles with him when his work transfers him there. Stella reflects upon how easy it has been to carry off the deception. No one ever questions her “whiteness.” All one has to do be “white,” she realizes, is to act as if you’re white. There is no special trick or skill involved in the process. In L.A., she and Blake live in upscale Brentwood, a uniformly white and wealthy neighborhood. They have a child, a girl they name Kennedy, who turns out to be blonde and fair. Though the others in the community, and...

(The entire section is 1,256 words.)