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Brit Bennett’s Dizygotic Twins: “The Vanishing Half” and “The Mothers” (modest spoilers)

Updated: Sep 21

Max Stearns

Like a bolt from the blue, Brit Bennett, an African-American woman half my age, who two months ago I hadn’t heard of, has emerged a favorite author. I’m not sure I’d have had this reaction had I read these books at the age she published “The Mothers”—twenty-six—or “The Vanishing Half”—thirty. This could mean Bennet exudes wisdom beyond her years or that she specially resonates in our present era. I suspect both.

I read, actually listened to, her second novel first. Although not a pair in the sense of a continuous storyline or a later exploration of the same characters, they are intimately connected thematically.

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, raised in Mallard, Louisiana, a fictional town based on historical towns familiar to the author's mother. The girls’ great great great grandfather, son of a slave, founded Mallard as a community for fair skinned blacks. The sisters’ story begins the 1940s and is told through the 1990s. Although fair skinned blacks were generally better treated than those with darker skin, that did not prevent their father’s brutal lyching and murder, which the girls witnessed. Cleaning homes rather than continuing high school to help support their mother, Desiree persuades Stella, for whom the working conditions proved notably worse, in their quest for a better life. This takes them to New Orleans, two hours, yet a world, away, abandoning their mother and their childhood town. Ultimately their once common quest motivates the title and storyline.

The Vanishing Half explores colorism, a preference among some African-Americans for lighter shadings; passing, the transformation of light skinned blacks into the white world; and transgenderism. Each phenomenon provides a perfect lens for Bennett’s exploration of conundrums and decisions plagued by moral ambiguity. Is racism less vile when perpetrated by lighter against darker skinned blacks? Does racial oppression justify abandonment and passing as white? Are family members, especially twins, morally bound against abandonment even if the price is living the life one desperately wishes to leave behind?

The Mothers spans a shorter timeframe. Nadia Turner, a beautiful African-American teen, experiences an unimaginable loss when her mother dies by suicide, leaving her to navigate life with her emotionally distant father. Nadia is extremely smart, destined for an elite education threatened by a romantic entanglement with the church pastor’s son, a former high school football star, who, following an injury, waits tables in a diner. A pregnancy, which she terminates, sets in motion a series of events, betrayals, and stained relationships. The title, once more, is important. The novel intersperses church mothers, elderly women, narrating insights into the lives of those they all too eagerly observe. Along the way, we discover the perils of unreliable narration and over claimed wisdom, a trait that, as the young author herself readily reveals, bears no necessary correlation to age. But The Mothers are not those mothers; rather, they are the tragic trio of mothers of babies and children who—wanted or not, kept or aborted, protected or abandoned—remain forever bound in, and defined by, a maternal role.

Despite their differing time spans, these novels’ likenesses prove stronger even than the ultimately superficial identity of Desiree and her vanishing half. The novels share the author’s willingness to make us upset with—even angry at—characters she powerfully compels us to care deeply about. Bennett is not afraid to show good people doing terrible things. And she’s comfortable leaving moral quandaries unresolved. The twinness of these divergent novels is deeper than the shadings of skin, a topic Bennett explores with authority and grace. Through characters we grow invested in, Bennett conveys a moral imperative—no matter our circumstances or challenges, no matter how daunting our choices, we cannot escape responsibility for the effects our decisions have on others, especially those we most love. The lesson particularly resonates in an age in which all too many justify personal decisions by their own lights, indifferent to the consequences for others, whether close and loved or distant and unknown.

Bennett conveys a corollary insight: Just as we bear responsibility for how our decisions affect others, no matter our constraints or claimed justifications in making them, so too genuine bonds of love prove remarkably resilient in withstanding the strain, never entirely breaking apart. We can love remotely, in spite of abandonment, without contact for years, sometimes without ever having met, and still, we can reconcile love with choices once deemed immoral, even unforgivable. Despite it all, genuine love may fray but never break.

I remain stuck on Bennett’s age. I’ve spent my career teaching law students, students her age when she wrote and then published The Mothers. A minor storyline explores law school. I can envision Bennett consulting her Stanford undergraduate classmates, perhaps when she was studying for her Masters in Fine Arts at Michigan, as they were studying law. With some irony, the only part of the novel that, to me, revealed her youth involved naïve depictions of a young woman too willing to shuffle folks to and fro while studying for the bar exam. In nearly thirty years of teaching, longer if I include my own studies and years of practice, I haven’t met such a generous recent law grad! Of course, that’s utterly trivial. A more notable challenge for me was the unresolved account of Nadia’s mother, lacking sufficient insight to understand her painful choice, or to reconcile its profound and tragic effects. To this reader, this remains the only genuine weakness in either novel. Despite that, each novel speaks with a profound wisdom that must be the envy even of authors decades Bennett’s senior.

One of the greatest lessons of a gifted novelist is learning when to stop. When she knows the reader fully appreciates the characters created, their strengths and flaws, fully dimensioned, those fictitious persons become as much the readers as her own. Past that, less is more. It is better, wiser, to trust the reader’s imaginings as to what happens from there. For me, the most moving novels are about characters, not plot, which is simply a device that allows a gifted author to explore our complex human condition. These novels are a gift, one that lets us see the world through the eyes of others so richly portrayed.

I welcome your comments.


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