This epic review of The Vanishing Half is a full reading guide in which I discuss the summary, themes, book club questions, and more from my favorite book of 2020, one of my favorite character-driven novels, and one of the best fiction books about New Orleans.
The writing was nothing short of mesmerizing, and the themes were so abundant and timely. The last page was truly the beginning for me, and that's why I'm sharing such a detailed book club kit for you below.
Epic Review of The Vanishing Half
Plot Summary of The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett debuted at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list and eventually became the Book of the Year (2020) on Book of the Month Club. It's the story of light-skinned Black identical twin sisters who grow up inseparable in a light-skinned Black community in Louisiana. At a young age, they witness their father's death and the hands of white men and, as teens, they run away from their home to New Orleans.
(If you are doing a 50 States of America reading challenge, this makes a great book for New Orleans.)
Then, twin sister Stella runs away from New Orleans to marry a white man, and she begins a new secret life as a white woman, estranged from her sister. Meanwhile, twin sister Desiree marries a Black man and has a dark-skinned daughter.
In summary, The Vanishing Half follows the twins and their families through decades of time from the 1950s to the 1990s and several more American settings, amongst the backdrop of their differing identities.
Review of The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half was easily a five-star book for me. While the first 50 pages were a bit slow as the reader tries to figure out the lay of the land, thereafter, you simply can't stop thinking about this book and waiting to dive back into it at every chance you get.
The plot structure was meticulously planned, jumping in time, yet providing an easy-to-follow narrative through just slices of life occurring at various times in various decades, and told by various characters. Bravo!
The writing was as rich and immersive as any Ann Patchett or Elena Ferrante book, and the characters were deeply drawn, complex and felt alive. Every word and every character choice meant something, and it was mesmerizing to read.
Lastly, there are so many themes sprinkled throughout this book so thoughtfully (i.e., race, identity, exposure, education, environment and acting) that the last page leaves you wanting more and thinking about the impact of this masterpiece.
And that cover art! All the heart eyes ...
I simply cannot recommend The Vanishing Half more highly. I will be talking about this one all year long at every chance I get.
Below are some of my favorite reviews of The Vanishing Half from around the web:
Themes from The Vanishing Half
Below are some of the most prevalent themes in The Vanishing Half. You can use them to create discussion questions:
Audio Book Excerpt for The Vanishing Half
I read the hardcover version of The Vanishing Half, but I have heard amazing things about the audiobook. Listen to an excerpt here:
Book Quotes from The Vanishing Half
Below in this reading guide are some of my favorite quotes from The Vanishing Half.
She hadn't realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.- Brit Bennett
You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.- Brit Bennett
A body could be labeled but a person couldn’t, and the difference between the two depended on that muscle in your chest. That beloved organ, not sentient, not aware, not feeling, just pumping along, keeping you alive.- Brit Bennett
In the dark, you could never be too black. In the dark, everyone was the same color.- Brit Bennett
When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.- Brit Bennett
Interviews with Brit Bennett
- Wall Street Journal: "With Author Brit Bennett’s Second Novel, a Literary Star Is Born"
- Barnes & Noble podcast
- CBS This Morning podcast
Book Club Discussion Questions for The Vanishing Half
I consider the mark of a truly thoughtful book to be one that compels me to write a series of my own discussion questions. And The Vanishing Half inspired me to write all of these book club questions. They are the perfect component for your book club kit for The Vanishing Half!:
Do you believe Stella "vanished" from her true identity as the title suggests? Why or why not?
Discuss Mallard as a major setting in this novel. What do you make of its name and why it was formed by its citizens, as well as why it ceased to exist by the end of the novel?
How were the other settings in The Vanishing Half (i.e., New Orleans, California, New York, Minneapolis) different from Mallard?
Stella and Desiree reacted differently to the post-traumatic stress of the death of their father. How do you think you and your family may have reacted?
Discuss "running away" as a theme in The Vanishing Half, which several characters did: Desiree, Stella, Kennedy, Jude, Reese.
Discuss "acting" as a theme in The Vanishing Half. For example, do you believe Kennedy was influenced by her mother's history to become an actress? Was Reese acting? What about Barry? What parts of your life feel like acting?
Why do you believe Bennett included Reese, a transgendered character, as such a major role in this book?
Discuss Stella's relations with Loretta and the role of Loretta's family in The Vanishing Half.
Do you think Early was capable of finding Stella?
Discuss "exposure" as a theme in The Vanishing Half. For example, both Stella and Reese often fear exposure, and Reese is a photographer exposing the film to the light. What do you make of this?
Discuss "education" as a theme in The Vanishing Half -- both the characters' access to it and their choices surrounding it.
Both twin sisters have daughters. Describe their daughters' similarities and differences, and what influenced each of their characters.
Why do you think Jude continues to seek out Kennedy over decades of time?
Discuss the character of Adele and her role in the lives of the other characters. What was her legacy?
What role does identity play in the romantic relationships in The Vanishing Half?
Which characters and relationships do you believe were happy?
Do you believe Stella will ever reveal her identity to her husband? If so, how will he react?
What do you think is next for these characters, especially Desiree, as she sets forth on a new journey?
Is identity intrinsic, created, or a bit of both?
Which characters do you believe were happy in their own skin at the end of the novel?
Discuss your favorite twins or sisters in pop culture.
Are you happy in your skin? Identify one thing about your background that makes you feel proud, and one way you can improve your self-identity.
For more book club questions:
Good Morning America Book Club
Good Morning America selected The Vanishing Half for its book club in June 2020. Read about it here, and watch Brit Bennett discuss The Vanishing Half on GMA.
Barnes & Noble Book Club
Barnes & Noble also selected The Vanishing Half for its book club in June 2020. Below, author Brit Bennett discussed her inspiration for the novel:
Author Kiley Reid also interviewed Brit Bennett about the book on Barnes & Noble's Facebook page -- it was a very interesting conversation!
Bad on Paper Podcast
Grace and Becca from the Bad on Paper Podcast (one of my faves!) also chose The Vanishing Half for their book club and discussed it on their podcast. I thought their Vanishing Half episode touched on unique points in the book not discussed elsewhere and found it to be totally worth a listen.
Pairings for The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half reminded me of some of the themes in Little Fires Everywhere, and how they were portrayed in that book. Bennett's writing style also reminded me of the depth and complexity of Elena Ferrante's writing in My Brilliant Friend (which also deals heavily with education and class), as well as Ann Patchett's writing, particularly in her epic family dramas (Commonwealth / The Dutch House). If you liked The Vanishing Half, you may enjoy these books.