THE VANISHING HALF appeared on a number of top 10 books of the year lists and it’s easy to see why. The novel has all the ingredients for a successful novel in 2020: Racial themes explored in the story of light-skinned Black twin sisters—Stella and Desiree—whose lives diverge when one decides to live as white and the other “stays” Black; a secondary, transgender theme and subplot; an up-and-coming Black woman author.
Aside from these aspects that the publishing industry is working hard to promote recently, the novel also benefits from beautiful writing at the sentence level, its deep-dives into the lives and minds of its characters, and a structure that effortlessly spans time and shifts in points of view.
It’s a pleasure to read. The most compelling part of the novel to me is the decision by Stella to live as white: how she recognized and responded to the opportunity, and how she wrestled with the impact of that decision through her life. To me, it was the central conflict of the novel, which made everything else somewhat less interesting.
The novel steps away from Stella and Desiree to focus on their children—Stella’s privileged “white” daughter Kennedy, and Desiree’s very dark daughter, Jude, who is in a relationship with Reese, a transgender man. Somehow, Kennedy and Jude coincidentally meet, which is a forgivable literary device early in the novel, but unacceptable when it happens a second time later in the novel and in time—running into each other in New York City, population of eight million or so? The lack of agency in the characters is a weak point that could have been avoided by eliminating coincidence and replacing it with motivation.
While the narrative of Kennedy and Jude is interesting as they explore and redefine racial identities and their relationship to each other, the more compelling conflict and inevitable reunion between their mothers gets back-burnered until towards the end. That made the last third of the novel drag for me a bit because you know it’s coming, and the reunion is handled a little too softly and emotionally for my taste, although it might unfold perfectly for other readers.
Still, the premise of the novel is so strong, the characters are richly drawn—even the minor ones—and the writing is fresh. Totally worth a read.
Epilogue: Another great novel about a Black person attempting to pass as white is Philip Roth’s THE HUMAN STAIN. Highly recommended.