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.

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Last Updated on August 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256

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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.

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 even her husband, sense a kind of reserve about Stella, she fits in perfectly and falsifies her past and her family background—or omits mention of it—in such a way that no one suspects the truth.

Desiree, in her return to Mallard, suffers the accusations of her mother, who criticizes her for having married a dark-skinned man, which she can infer from the darkness of Jude’s skin. Adele charges that Desiree married Sam out of “spite.” Meanwhile, Sam has hired a “bounty hunter” to locate Desiree. By chance, this man, Early Jones, had met Desiree in Mallard when she was a teenager. He recognizes her from the photographs he has been given, and he goes to Mallard to reunite with Desiree rather than to reveal her whereabouts to his client. Desiree and Early then begin a relationship that lasts many years.

In Brentwood, California, nothing untoward happens in the world of the Sanders family until a black family moves into the neighborhood in 1968. At first the residents try legal efforts to block them, but are unsuccessful. It turns out that the new resident is a TV star, Reg Walker, who plays a policeman in a popular series. His celebrity at first seems to mollify the white residents. Even so, few people are friendly with Reg, his wife Loretta, and their daughter. Despite the fact that the Civil Rights Movement has been underway for more than a decade, the white residents of Brentwood are clueless and bigoted in the extreme.

Stella is troubled by the presence of other African-Americans given that her whole life has become a kind of performance. Partly out of guilt, but partly from ordinary kindness, she bakes a cake for the Walkers, takes it to them, and becomes friendly with Loretta. Yet the Walkers are the only couple not invited to the Sanders’ Christmas party. And when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, is playing with the Walkers’ daughter one day, Kennedy uses the n-word to her. This does not especially surprise the Walkers. Eventually, the Walkers are threatened, harassed, and vandalized in the crudest ways by their white neighbors and are forced to move out of Brentwood.

The novel jumps forward and backward in time during a forty-year period from the 1950s to the 90s. In episodes taking place in the 80s, the daughters of Desiree and Stella—Jude and Kennedy, respectively—become the focus of the story. Jude wins an athletic scholarship to UCLA and attends college and then medical school. Kennedy becomes an actress, first working in local stage productions—mostly musicals—in the L.A. area, then moving to New York and back to California, where she lands a starring role in a TV soap opera.

A chance encounter enables Jude, then in Los Angeles, to see Stella, whom she recognizes as her mother’s twin, and to become friendly with Kennedy. When Jude approaches her, Stella rebuffs her, but Jude also reveals the truth to Kennedy, who eventually is compelled to recognize that her own ancestry is partly African-American. Jude has a long-term relationship with a transgender man named Reese, while Kennedy drifts from one man to another without fulfillment.

The consequences of this familial reconciliation are far-reaching. Stella finally revisits Mallard and learns that her mother, Adele, has dementia and is dying. Stella gives Early, Desiree’s long-time partner, her wedding ring to pay for their mother’s care. She does not stay in Mallard but returns to her husband, still telling him nothing about her true ancestry. She and Kennedy proceed with their “white” lives, and when Adele dies, neither of them are present for the funeral. The story closes with all the characters reflecting upon the meaning of this divergence within the family and considering what it has meant to reconnect as they have done. Despite these reflections, no resolution of the basic conflict in their interfamilial dynamic has been achieved. Ultimately, the story of the Vignes family can be seen as a microcosm of a racially divided America.

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