The Vignes twins are identical but they couldn’t be more different in personality. This is the story of light-skinned black twins whose lives take very different paths.
The twins grew up in the odd little fictional southern town of Mallard where the blacks found dark skin undesirable. The lighter they were, the better, and the dark-skinned blacks faced discrimination from the light-skinned blacks.
As young children, the twins endure a trauma when they see their father lynched by white men. This changes the trajectory of their lives. Eventually the girls strike out on their own. Stella chooses to break ties with her family, “pass over”, and live as a white. She marries a wealthy white man and has a white, blond-haired daughter, Kennedy. Desiree makes a bad choice in a husband but eventually returns home to her hometown with Jude, her very dark black daughter.
I don’t want to ruin the story and give away too much, so I’ll keep this light on plot. What is it like for Desiree and Jude to live in a town that values light skin and discriminates against dark skin, when Jude is so very dark? How does this shape her? What is it like for Stella to live a lie, to live without relatives or childhood friends, without a history to share? Does her wealth and privilege bring contentment and happiness? She can never truly open up to anyone, not even her husband and daughter, for fear of exposing her true self. How does this shape her daughter Kennedy? What happens when a black family moves into Stella’s very white, very wealthy neighborhood?
Their choices have far-reaching unintended consequences. Eventually, events transpire that threatens to destroy the life Stella has so carefully built. How she reacts and the effects on the daughters of Stella and Desiree comprise much of the second half of the book. If you think you know where this story is going, you’d be wrong. There are surprising developments that are anything but predictable.
I found the first half a slow build up but the second half I blew through in an afternoon. The only things that kept me from giving this a full 5 stars were a few too many coincidences moving the plot forward and awkward transitions between chapters and characters. But, the strengths in this moving novel overshadows these small criticisms.
“There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.”
Powerful, thought-provoking, and profound, but told through such compelling, yet flawed, characters it doesn’t read like an “issue” book. The subplot of identity is handled with depth and sensitivity.
Spanning decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, this is an exploration of “passing”. I had not heard this term used before and read more here:
|‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America : Code Switch : NPRFrom the time of slavery, some light-skinned African-Americans escaped racism by passing as white. The new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, explores what they lost.www.npr.org|
Is the vanishing half losing your twin or is it losing the half of yourself you choose to deny and leave behind when you pass? Perhaps it’s both. I love an introspective book that reveals the inner lives of characters. Days after finishing the book and I’m still thinking about these characters and the issues raised.
Marialyce and I read this together and it inspired thoughtful, deep discussions. This would make a wonderful choice for a book club .
*I received a free digital copy of this book via Edelweiss. All opinions are my own.
Fractured families seem to be always fractured. Many do not learn that it is family that gives us our identity for good or bad, it is the tie that binds. We can’t really change, although some have tried, the race we have been born into, however, as in all things we, or at least most of us try to deal with, overcome, or maybe if we are fortunate take joy in the cards we have been dealt.
In the book The Vanishing Half, we find a fractured family. Twin identical girls, Desiree and Stella Vignes, witness the brutal death of their father. They live in a town where there are degrees of whiteness or better yet, degrees of non blackness, and even though they are light skinned African Americans they seemed to be judged better because they could pass for white. The girls grow to age sixteen and then decide to leave the restrictive environment of their small town and venture into the big outside world. Their journey, as their life separates them from one another, is the gist of the story.
“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”
It’s the tale of two sisters, the tale of growing up one sister poor, while the other is rich. It’s a tale for Stella thinking you are attaining happiness when in reality all you are doing is living a lie. It is a story of loss, one that separates the sisters, one that draws one sister, Desiree, back to a town she swore never to return to with a daughter whose skin color is quite dark. It is the story of a daughter’s love for her mother, a love that brings her back to the beginning as she witnesses her dark skinned daughter’s struggle to survive. Meanwhile, Stella lives a life of luxury, married to a wealthy white man, mother to a daughter as well whose skin color is white, never revealing her own heritage and never able to form a strong mother daughter bond with her daughter. However, the weight of the lie weighs upon her constantly and when a black couple move to the house across the way, a decision is made that will unleash Stella’s fear and anxiety.
I thought the book also explored the idea of whether one can go home again or is there just too much water under that bridge for one to make that leap? Some can, some can’t because they refuse to admit that all along family is everything.
I very much enjoyed the first half of the book, as it set a bevy of questions swirling. It’s always interesting to place oneself in the same position and wonder what would I have done? I was a tad disappointed in the second half, often finding it overly worded and like Jan the abrupt change of characters and settings was indeed jarring.
However, this is definitely a book that could start many a conversation, an ideal story for book club discussions and the like. I would definitely recommend the book as one in which we see so many topics covered that are both relevant and timely.
Jan and I were burning up the internet with our discussion of this book which always makes the reading so much better and meaningful.
Many thanks to Edelweiss for a copy of this book.