'The Vanishing Half' Is a Brilliant Exploration of Race and Identity

"This is one of those books with so much to unpack and explore, I could be here all day."

the vanishing half by brit bennett
(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)

By now, you've probably seen Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half all over your Instagram feed. The cover is beautiful, of course, but it's the incredible storytelling that has made Bennett's second novel the must-read book of summer 2020. Told through multiple perspectives across decades, The Vanishing Half centers on identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who run away from their fictional hometown of Mallard, Louisiana, in the 1950s and ultimately find themselves living two very different lives: one Black and one white. That's just the beginning.

Though a couple members of the #ReadWithMC community admitted it took a little time for them to become truly immersed in the story, sticking it out was well worth it—soon they weren't able to put the book down. Black women in particular felt seen by the way Bennett explored race and identity throughout the novel—acknowledging the complexities that come with being light- or dark-skinned. As one reviewer reflects, "Being bullied when I was younger for being too dark took years to get over. When [the character, Jude] speaks of having wanted to lighten her skin I FELT that, having had those own thoughts myself when I was a kid. I’m so glad I never did. I didn’t realize the joy and confidence that was waiting for me once I began to love my complexion."

Find out what else readers had to say about The Vanishing Half, below, and make sure to get your hands on it before it becomes an HBO limited series

"'You could never know who might hurt you until it was too late.' In a town called Mallard made up of only light-skin Black people, identical twins Desiree and Stella run away. Years later, Stella is living life as a white woman on one side of the world while Desiree has returned to their small town with a dark-skinned daughter.

I loved that I didn’t have to work hard to get to know these characters. The development was excellent and even though the main focus was on the twin sisters and their daughters there are so many side characters. All of their back stories could’ve been its own story.

The character I identified with the most was Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter. Living in a town where everyone is light skin, Jude stands out and not in a good way. She’s picked on and treated less than by her own people. Reading Jude’s part of the story dug up some painful memories for me I’ve kept buried for a very long time. Being bullied when I was younger for being too dark took years to get over. When she speaks of having wanted to lighten her skin I FELT that, having had those own thoughts myself when I was a kid. I’m so glad I never did. I didn’t realize the joy and confidence that was waiting for me once I began to love my complexion.

This is one of those books with so much to unpack and explore I could be here all day. I loved every minute of this book. I love family drama and I love small towns. This is that and more. It’s fast-paced, emotional, and thought-provoking. Brit Bennett is definitely an author to watch!" —@chocolatecoveredpages

"No longer at the beach, but I finally found time to finish The Vanishing Half 💖 I can’t express how much this novel lives up to the hype! @britrbennett does a phenomenal job exploring racism, colorism, small town Southern life, and so much more, all within a super compelling story. Can’t recommend it enough!!" —@kanishalucille

"Brit Bennett’s writing is so superb!! She really has a way with planting her characters at the right moments and making them stick in your heart. I can’t wait to read more by her!

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a twin and Bennett really brought that to life in my mind. Stella and Desiree are the infamous Vignes twins who took off from their small Black community at the age of 16. From there, they both take polar opposite paths of dealing with their racial identities.

I absolutely love stories with long timelines and multiple viewpoints. This book is emotional, it has its moments of comedy and tears, and most importantly shows the strength of a person’s roots. Did not disappoint and reading it with my fav @betta.read.books helped me to digest it and process it." —@collecting_pages

"🙌🙌🙌 I LOVED IT!!! Finished in a day!! So beautifully written and complex. I love her work 💖💖💖" —@susannahayward

"The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett for me started slow until I got invested in the characters and once that happened, I could not put it down! If you read this one, be prepared to be introduced to a lot of characters, each bringing unique contributions to the plot. In my opinion, this made the story very interesting. All of the people in this book left a lasting impression on me and helped provide the book with multiple prospectives on race and gender. As I read, I found myself wanting to see how all of the characters fit into the lives of the Vignes twins, the main focus of the book.

The story starts in a town called Mallard, Louisiana, a town that Stella and Desiree Vignes, identical twins, are desperate to leave. One day, the twins up and vanish, leaving behind their identities and their family to start over fresh in a larger city. Eventually, the story diverges and the twins cease contact after Stella makes a decision that changes everything. Stella chooses to identify as white to live a life of privilege. The reader will learn that she will do whatever it takes to protect her lie from her new family. Desiree chooses to identify as Black and finds herself as an adult back in Mallard, longing for contact with her sister. They both end up having daughters and their lives are weaved together in a way that kept me on edge to find out if they will be the key in helping to reunite their mothers. If you are thinking about reading this one, just do it!" —@herbivorereader

"Just finished it yesterday! I really appreciate the nuanced portrayal of colorism, the intricacies of identity, and what it means to 'pass' in a few different ways. I love how thoughtfully Brit Bennett wrote each character and how their stories were interwoven. Absolutely recommend as an amazing pick, especially for a book club discussion!!" —@maracsantilli

"This story is told over a span of decades, from the '50s to '90s. This is a story about race, love, and how it can shape a person. The characters were interesting and had their struggles with their identity. I really enjoyed reading this book. It was slow at times, but frequent change in the storyline really kept me engaged. Not to mention, the author's writing style is amazing 👏🏾👏🏾." —@hillysreads

"Ok, so listen. There are already a million and one reviews out there on this book, so I’m just going to say this: Brit Bennett is a fantastic storyteller and yes, you should get the book. 😂😂😂 Y’all, Stella was tap dancing on my last nerve this whole book!!!! And the ending...I have sooo many thoughts!!!" —@turnpageswithmimi

"I knew from the first page that I was going to love this book. I don't say this often, but I think this book is a must-read for everyone.

The story follows twin girls growing up in a small Southern town named Mallard, where a community of light-skinned Black people have settled down. The twins yearn to escape and decide to run away together. Not too long after, they split up when one twin decides to leave everything behind and pass as a white woman.

The idea of 'passing' is so fascinating to me. I can't imagine the strain it would have on someone who is passing long-term. I also can't imagine leaving everything behind and reinventing yourself completely, but luckily Brit Bennett has imagined it for us.

Bennett is a true storyteller and the writing in this book is brilliant. I was engrossed from start to finish as she skillfully wove this story through multiple decades and generations of this family. Honestly, I'm grateful that I got to go along on that journey and experience the richness of this book.

I feel like I could go on and on and on about this book, and specific scenes and quotes that struck me to the core. I thought that The Mothers was an excellent book, but I feel that Bennett has surpassed herself here. I know I will be thinking about these characters and this story for a long time. The TL;DR version of my review: this. book. is. amazing. Read it now!" —@scsreads

"The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a book that will forever stay with me. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books. The story follows twin sisters growing up in rural Louisiana in the midst of Jim Crow. The sisters eventually separate, one leading her life as a Black woman and the other passing as white. This book seamlessly delves into the complexities of colorism, classism, and gender identity beautifully. The prose was thought-provoking as much as it was emotional, awe-inspiring, and lyrical.

I don’t want to give too much away because there were several elements that left me speechless. This multiple POV story spanned several decades effortlessly and the characters were rich, developed and intimate. I found myself completely engrossed with all of the characters equally.

Brit Bennett flawlessly captured the emotional struggles some feel with racial identity. This was something that I felt personally being a second generation Mexican-American raised in a bicultural and biracial household. The Vanishing Half was not only a timely and poignant story, it was, for me, a relatable one." —@gracehartsbooks

"Have you read The Vanishing Half yet? If your answer is no, then this is your next read! This book is outstanding and getting all of the praise right now, every bit of it deserved. Brit Bennett takes on race, gender, sexuality, trauma, identity, culture, and then some. While reading, I repeatedly found myself just sitting with my emotions about what was within those pages. You will FEEL this book. ⁣

I loved the way the story was told with multiple point of views and flashbacks. I was so impressed with the way Bennett skillfully weaved the story together. It was flawless.⁣ This story is so incredible, so beautiful, and so important. I wanted to stay inside this book and remain with the characters long after I read the last page." —@littlefoot_books

"I finished The Vanishing Half on Friday, but needed to sit with it for a few days. This book was not what I expected, in a good way. I knew I would enjoy it, but didn’t realize how thought provoking it would be. This isn’t a book that you can rush through. It takes time to really read and understand the layers and depth of the characters. The core of the book is racial identity and colorism; however, so much more is uncovered in the story. This story is deep, powerful, traumatic, and compassionate." —@kristinasbookishlife

"Did you ever read anything so beautiful, so powerful, with such masterful writing that upon finishing the book, you just closed the cover, and sat in silence, trying to savor the magnificent thing you just read? That was my experience with The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twin girls, Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town predominantly populated with lighter-skinned African-Americans such as themselves. Their childhood is cut horrifically short when the twins witness the lynching and ultimate death of their beloved father and later are forced to leave high school to help their mother financially.

Restless and hungry for life outside of the confines of their small town, the twins run away to New Orleans and try to carve out their own version of the American dream. They get jobs, share an apartment, and make friends. However, their lives together radically diverge when Stella runs away, telling Desiree in a note that she needs to 'make it on her own.' Stella intends to 'pass' and live her life as a white woman.

Heartbroken, Desiree tries to figure out how to live her life without Stella—essentially without the other part of her.

Bennett’s novel spans generations as we chronicle Desiree and Stella’s respective journeys and the very different lives of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. Bennett explores racism, colorism, community, identity, and sexuality as we explore these characters and the people that become entwined in their lives. The story is mesmerizing and powerful, a call to love and a call to consciousness especially in our current times.

I would give it five stars, but that’s not nearly enough—I’m a better person for experiencing this story❤️" —@suzylew_bookreview

"It can be a scary thing going into a book that is surrounded by so much hype because there's the chance the book may not live up to the hype. I'm happy to say that for me The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett definitely lived up to all the hype. It is so hard to put into words just how much I loved this book. The Vanishing Half tells the story of two identical twin sisters who end up living two drastically different lives, one sister making a life passing for white, while the other sister returns, with her daughter, to her small town after her marriage takes a turn for the worse. The book spans several decades as we learn what becomes of the Vignes twins.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ The Vanishing Half is about the choices we make in life and where they lead us and how they impact the people around us. The story moves back and forth through time and cycles through different characters' perspectives. I loved how Bennett was able to weave the multiple points of view together to tell the story of Desiree and Stella, as well as their daughters, Jade and Kennedy, to examine the different paths they took in life. Sometimes when a book has multiple POVs, it can be hard to keep it all straight. However Bennett did a great job of connecting them all together to put the pieces of their story together. You're really able to see how the choices made rippled through the generations of the Vignes family. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ The Vanishing Half had me hooked from the beginning and I did not want to put the book down. It's a powerful and thought-provoking read that examines family, grief, love, acceptance, and identity. This story will definitely stick with me for a long time. It was a five-star read for me. I highly recommend this book to everyone.⁣⁣⁣" —@contemporarily_yours

"Suuuch an amazing book! I loved every minute of reading! Her writing is so colorful you see the characters and become so attached to them as friends and family. A great book! I have it in my Kindle app, but will purchase it for my bookshelf as well." —@kdotjones

"The Vanishing Half was nothing short of amazing. This entire book is centered around {IDENTITY} and finding where you fit in this puzzle we call {LIFE}. The Vignes sisters' are something else!! Determined to live life on their own terms, they run away from home and embark on one hell of a life journey. They broke rules, defied family expectations, and travelled to the {DARKEST} and {WHITEST} of places to find themselves. Lies were told, children were born, secrets were kept, and new families were made.

The Vanishing Half made me think about the things we go through to find peace within ourselves. How we mask who we truly are and begin to believe the lie we created because facing the truth is too hard. It allowed me to understand just how important {SELF-LOVE} is. This book was NECESSARY! As a Black Woman, it's important to embrace who you are, to acknowledge the {GIFT} you were given when God made you. Don't allow society to ever tell you your skin isn't good enough. Stella got sucked in and lost herself, Desiree did the same. Nothing in this world will come easy to us, but trust and believe it'll be 10x harder without your sister." —@_pagesgaloree

"The Vanishing Half: A story of two identical twin sisters, who couldn’t be more different. After growing up in a small town in Louisiana, where light skin is expected, they decide to escape at the young age of 16. While the two live together in the early days, Stella breaks off to form her own life as a white woman. The story spans multiple generations from the '50s to the '90s and from many points of view, including Desiree and Stella’s own daughters. While Stella makes a life for herself in California, Desiree returns home to their small town of Mallard. Despite thousands of miles, the lives of the twins remain intertwined. Bennett’s storytelling abilities, especially her realistic grasp of family dynamics, are better than I’ve ever read. I was so addicted to her incredible prose that putting the book down if only for a few minutes was difficult. The Vanishing Half tackles a number of topics and dynamics including, race, LGBTQ+, family relationships, abuse, and the complexities of marriage. Despite such a daunting task, Bennett weaves together all of these themes seamlessly. I could not recommend this book MORE!" —@brabsandbooks

"Quality and diverse characters. The prose and style is beautiful and haunting. The themes widened my perspective on race and made me grateful for sisterhood. Overall, worth the time and investment." —@m.j.patzer

"This is a true page-turner and it just confirms my love for Brit Bennett’s writing!! The Vanishing Half is layered with topics such as race, racism, colorism, sexuality, family, acceptance, opportunities, and love. There is so much room for discussion here!! The characters are all well-developed & intriguing. I loved how all characters voices were heard, their POV of intertwined events were all written so beautifully that I was pulled into each of their stories. The writing is beautiful and moves at a great pace.

I loved how Brit Bennett portrayed the parallels of the lives of Stella and Desiree as well as their children. I love a good multi-generational book. Things I appreciated in the book were Reese’s journey transitioning and I loved the character Early as well.

I really enjoyed this book. It has lived up to all of the hype I’ve seen. Brit Bennett is amazing!! I would highly recommend. Five stars." —@all_things_jamie_

"I’ll start by saying I loved this book. I gave it five stars, and Brit Bennett is a read-everything-she-ever-publishes kind of author for me. If I had to choose, though, I’d say I prefer her first novel, The Mothers, which became an instant favorite for me. While the sharp clarity of her prose is still here, I think she may have sacrificed some character development for the sake of plot momentum. That being said, I still loved it and I still recommend you read it. And while you’re at it, read The Mothers. And then let me know which one you prefer. I think they both make great summer reads and would be really interesting to read back to back, but maybe that’s just me." —@jamiereadsbooks

"The Vanishing Half lives up to the hype and more. I was blown away by the story and by Britt Bennett’s storytelling. ⁣The story is layered and impeccably paced. The characters are complex and well-developed. Each shift in perspective advances and rounds out the plot. Bennett explores many complex themes with wisdom and compassion: family, racism, colorism, identity, lies, love, abuse. ⁣

I was struck most by her moving and thought-provoking exploration of identity: the circumstances, cultural norms, and decisions that formed each of the character’s identities and the way their identities affected their relationships to themselves, their loved ones, and the world. ⁣It is incredible what Bennett condensed into under 350 pages, especially without a hint of it feeling overwritten. The book is a true page-turner and I found myself simultaneously sneaking in pages whenever I could and slowing down to savor that feeling of reading a really, really good book." —@agrayreads

Missed out on our July book club pick? In August, we're reading Raven Leilani's highly-anticipated debut novel, Luster. Read an excerpt from the book here.


helen hoang the heart principle

(Image credit: Design by Morgan McMullen)

luster by raven leilani

(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)
Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.