Book club questions for The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett will take an in-depth look at this engaging novel about race, family and fate. There will be spoilers so for more context about the story, check out my spoiler-free review.
I was truly blown away by this novel. I thought it was so original and the characters felt real. I was completely engaged the entire time. I also thought the length was just right, which is not something that typically happens with literary fiction. Now I need to go read Brit Bennett’s The Mothers!
As I write this, the country, the world, is very much focused on the racial injustice that is suffered by the black community. People are taking to the streets to fight for change. Yes, reading can serve as escapism but you can’t ignore what’s happening outside right now. This one does focus on race and the dynamics between white and black people. It’s also very much about identity, the past, family and how it all intersects.
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
Book Club Questions for The Vanishing Half
- Let’s first talk about what the title means in the context of this story.
- The story starts off with Desiree returning home to Mallard, Louisiana after running away at age 16 with her twin sister Stella. In many ways, the town is another character to the story. Let’s talk about this and the impact of the town on both the twins and Desiree’s daughter, Jude.
- Desiree and Stella’s father is murdered by white men in a horrific crime that sees no justice. This tragedy impacted the sisters in different ways. Desiree seems to bury it but Stella is very traumatized. Why do you think Stella made such a significant decision to leave behind everything and deny a huge part of who she is?
- Despite the fact that Stella takes on a new identity as a white woman, her past is always with her. Do you agree that no matter how far away home is, it never leaves you?
- How do you think Stella was able to hide the fact that she’s black for so long? How do you think she was able to conceal it from Blake? Do you think she will ever tell him the truth?
- What did you think about the relationship between Desiree and Early? How does it differ from Stella and Blake’s?
- Jude is bullied in Mallard and they tore down her confidence. But she gets a scholarship to UCLA and she eventually flourishes. Let’s talk about Jude’s character development in the story.
- Let’s talk about the differences between Jude and Kennedy as a result of upbringing and environment.
- Jude meets Reese, the love of her life. Let’s talk about their romance and how they bonded through their traumatic pasts.
- If they would have actually developed a true friendship, do you think Stella would have ever told her neighbor Loretta the truth about who she really is? Do you think Loretta suspected anything about Stella?
- Stella thinks about “passing” and that at first it seemed so simple, she wondered why her parents didn’t. “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.” Let’s discuss this.
- Stella thinks that becoming a white person means an easier life. Maybe it is as far as money due to Blake’s job but she’s never quite herself. Desiree dealt with horrible abuse but once she gets away, she’s content with Early and loves her daughter. Do you think Desiree ended up having the better life?
- Let’s talk a bit more about Jude and Kennedy’s relationship and dynamic. Why do you think they end up staying in touch after everything is all said and done?
- Why did Stella finally decide to go home? What did you think about the reunion of Desiree and Stella? Why didn’t Stella stay longer?
- Kennedy knows the truth and thinks her mother showed her love by lying and in turn, Kennedy does the same. What did she mean by that?
- What did you think about the ending? Were you happy to see Desiree finally leave Mallard?
More book recommendations
Hope you enjoyed book club questions for The Vanishing Half! Here are some more recommendations along with links to book club questions.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is an engaging and original story about race and privilege.
Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.
With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” and the complicated reality of being a grown up. It is a searing debut for our times.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
Another book that focuses on the complicated dynamic between sisters is The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi.
Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…
Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does.