Identical twins are one of nature’s most fascinating wonders. Two offspring, born of the same pregnancy, who look exactly alike; one can’t help but compare one sibling to the other. To scientists, twins offer a unique research opportunity that is too good to pass up, and they have therefore been an integral component to researching the effects of nature versus nurture. In one famous yet ethically questionable study, three twins who were separated at birth were studied to explore how deeply their similarities ran when each sibling was raised in a completely different environment.
Brit Bennett’s upcoming novel “The Vanishing Half” offers a new take on the study of twins, using twin characters to explore the controversial topic of racial passing. The novel follows Stella and Desiree, the identical Vignes twins, a once inseparable pair who ultimately chooses to live in two completely different worlds. As 16-year-olds, the twins are able to escape the restrictive confines of their tiny “colorstruck” Black community called Mallard and make their own way in the world. However, while Desiree ultimately returns to her birthplace, Stella chooses to “pass over” and live her life as a white woman. Stella cuts off all ties to her previous life, and takes measures to ensure that no one in her new life has any idea of her past life as a Black woman. Years later, chance brings together the daughters of the estranged twin sisters. The result is a breath-taking generational family story that tackles the charged topic of racial passing in America.
Reading “The Vanishing Half” is like a breath of fresh air. Bennett’s writing style immediately catches the eye: straightforward and to the point, yet incredibly insightful and saturated with emotion. The characters are real, raw and relatable, and it is so easy to become lost in the twins’ respective worlds. Bennett takes great care to shape the Vignes sisters into three dimensional characters, and as the novel unfolds, the characters come to life. While Stella is timid and proper, Desiree is restless and impulsive. Desiree is flighty like a bird, Stella pragmatic and realistic with a mathematician’s mind. They are perfect foils to each other, like two sides of a coin. Their differences complete each other. As Bennett beautifully puts it, the Vignes twins were like “two bodies poured into one, each pulling it her own way.” Their estrangement is devastating for both sisters, and each is left feeling like they are missing a part of themselves. It’s as if there is a magical bond connecting them to each other, and no matter where they go, they still feel the presence of their far away other half. Bennett carefully explores the effects that Stella’s choice to pass over has on their sisterly bond and beautifully captures the essence of what it means to be a twin.
The chance meeting of the Vignes twins’ daughters strayed dangerously close to being too far-fetched, but their unembellished and rocky acquaintance ended up being a remarkably interesting addition to the novel. Jude (Desiree’s daughter) and Kennedy (Stella’s daughter) could not have turned out more different; Jude, whose skin is “black as tar,” grows up dealing with racism, Kennedy, blonde and fair, is raised with the privilege of whiteness, Jude is thoughtful and studious, Kennedy is dramatic and lazy. It is hard to believe these two girls, each the absolute antithesis of the other, originate from identical twins. This divide just uncovers how different the lives that the Vignes twins choose for themselves are. These differences translate into the lives of their daughters, shaping the unfolding paths of the next generation. Stella and Desiree’s daughters have to face the confusion of their split identities, one half of the family being white, the other Black. Kennedy asks her boyfriend, “Would you love me … if I weren’t white?” Jude faces hatred and racial prejudice for being a different skin tone than her mother. Stella’s choice to pass over has consequences far beyond the scope of her own life. Bennett explores the subtle effects of Stella’s choice in a carefully measured and deliberate manner.
Found on countless booklists for most anticipated new releases in 2020,“The Vanishing Half” lives up to the hype. It is clear from the very first chapter that author Brit Bennett created a masterpiece. Bennett weaves together the stories of the Vignes twins and their daughters with extraordinary attention to detail, creating an emotionally satisfying novel that leaves the reader with a subtly new perspective. “The Vanishing Half” is a page turner to the very end, and transcends genres with elements of romance, mystery, history, crime and heartbreak. Brit Bennett is a young, up-and-coming American author, and “The Vanishing Half” promises to be her breakthrough novel to launch her into the realm of literary recognition. This will be one of the best books of the year, no doubt about it.