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Identical Twins Become Divided By Race In 'The Vanishing Half'

One of the characters that comes to the fore in the second half of Brit Bennett's new novel, The Vanishing Half, is a young actress named Kennedy Sanders. She's an attractive blonde pushing 30, who, after years of trying to make it in the serious theater, lands a role on a soap opera.

Bennett writes that when Kennedy calls her parents to tell them about her big break, she assures them that "There was nothing wrong with melodrama, . ... In fact, some of the greatest classic actresses — Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo — trafficked in it from time to time."

That relatively small moment in this novel caught my attention; it felt to me that Bennett here was also talking in defense of her own fiction and its heavy "trafficking" in coincidences and other over-the-top plot contrivances.

I liked her debut novel, The Mothers -- about the long consequences of an unplanned teenage pregnancy — but I'd also faulted it for being melodramatic. Now, I'm recognizing that's how Bennett rolls as a novelist: embracing melodrama as a beguiling way to delve into difficult topics. In The Vanishing Half, Bennett takes up a subject perfectly suited to her signature melodramatic style: I'm talking about "racial passing," which has inspired, mostly tragic novels like Nella Larsen's Passing, as well as Douglas Sirk's grand cinematic tear-jerker, Imitation of Life.

The Vanishing Half tells the multi-generational story of the Vignes sisters, Desiree and Stella, two very pretty identical twins who grow up in the small town of Mallard, La. It's a town where all the residents are light-skinned African Americans.

In 1952, when the sisters are 16, they decide to run away to New Orleans to see what the wider world has to offer. Mostly, it has to offer menial jobs. Intrigued by an ad for secretarial work, the quieter sister, Stella, decides to try to pass as white. She's so successful, that she vanishes completely into whiteness, abruptly cutting off all ties for decades with both her broken-hearted sister and her mother back in Mallard.

Bennett's omniscient narrator roams around here, checking in on multiple characters and jumping backwards and forwards in time. The novel actually opens at a much later point in the story, when Desiree, the once wilder sister, is trudging on the road back to her mother's house in Mallard. She's seeking refuge from an abusive husband and is tugging her little daughter, Jude, by the hand. But unlike Desiree, whose skin is described as "the color of sand barely wet," little Jude is "blueblack"; her father, we're told, was "the darkest man [Desiree] could find." What awaits Jude as she grows up and attends school in "colorstruck" Mallard are years of shunning by her light-skinned classmates who label her: "Tar Baby. Midnight. Darky. [And] Mudpie."

Meanwhile, across the country in L.A., Stella has, to outward appearances, hit the "passing" jackpot. She's married her wealthy white boss (who has no clue she's black) and is now the mother of a snow angel of a little girl; a girl who'll grow up to be that blonde actress named Kennedy I mentioned earlier. Like the Titanic and the iceberg, first cousins Jude and Kennedy are fated to be on a collision course that will, in time, upend their sense of family and racial identity.

Bennett is especially artful in delving into Stella's situation, which, at first, seems so cushy, but turns out to be fraught with the daily terror of being found out. In a section of the novel set in 1968, Stella's exclusively white Brentwood neighborhood is up in arms because a black family has moved in. In a vexed, hesitant way, Stella finds herself befriending Loretta, the wife of the black couple. Daydreaming, Stella imagines the relief of confessing her secret to Loretta:

That's a pretty devastating truth contained in Stella's momentary fantasy. Again and again, throughout this entertaining and brazenly improbable novel, Bennett stops readers — or at least stopped this white reader — in their tracks with such pointed observations about privilege and racism. As another melodramatic novelist, Charles Dickens, recognized: If you tell people a wild and compelling enough story, they may just listen to things they'd rather not hear.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.