The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

by Brit Bennett

Hardcover

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

An indelible tale of identity, family and home that centers around identical twin sisters and their daughters, all living vastly different lives. From the acclaimed author of The Mothers, The Vanishing Half is a story that asks pertinent and, at times, overwhelming questions about who we are and where we’re headed as a society. Brit Bennett’s writing is smart and sharp, funny and melancholy, and it’s clear she has a lot of love for her characters. You will not be able to put this book down!

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2020 BY THE NEW YORK TIMES * THE WASHINGTON POST * NPR * PEOPLE * TIME MAGAZINE* VANITY FAIR * GLAMOUR 


“Bennett’s tone and style recalls James Baldwin and Jacqueline Woodson, but it’s especially reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye.” —Kiley Reid, Wall Street Journal 

A story of absolute, universal timelessness …For any era, it's an accomplished, affecting novel. For this moment, it's piercing, subtly wending its way toward questions about who we are and who we want to be….” – Entertainment Weekly

From The New York Times-bestselling author of The Mothers, a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.

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.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ayana Mathis

The Vanishing Half is a brave foray into vast and difficult terrain. It is about racial identity, of course, and three generations of mother-daughter relationships. It is also about a particularly American existential conflict—the tension between personal freedom and responsibility to a community. The novel raises thorny questions about the cost of blackness. The answers are complicated…It would seem that it isn't quite possible to stop being black in America, no matter how hard you try.

The New York Times - Parul Sehgal

Bennett is a remarkably assured writer who mostly sidesteps the potential for melodrama inherent in a form built upon secrecy and revelation. The past laps at the present in short flashbacks, never weighing down the quick current of a story that covers almost 20 years…and the pages fairly turn themselves…The Vanishing Half is a book sashed in influences…As Jude suffers the viciousness of her color-struck town, it's impossible not to think of Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye…There is a touch of Dorothy Allison in Bennett's evocation of girlhood and small-town life, and in the book's most resonant parallel, Stella leans out of a bedroom window to smoke a cigarette at a party, recalling the climactic scene of [Nella] Larsen's Passing. These echoes—deliberate and affectionate—are beautiful to behold in a book about suppressed lineages…As old as the story of passing may be, so too is the effort, the history of language and art, to capture its complicated desire and alienating costs. Sometimes only one fiction can untangle another.

Publishers Weekly

★ 03/02/2020

Bennett (The Mothers) explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work. The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, were born and raised in Mallard, La., the slave-born founder of which imagined a town with “each generation lighter than the one before.” In the early 1940s, when the twins are little, they witness their father’s lynching, and as they come of age, they harbor ambitions to get out. Desiree, the more headstrong sister, leads Stella to New Orleans when they are 16, and after a few months, the quiet, studious Stella, who once dreamt of enrolling in an HBCU, disappears one night. In 1968, 14 years later, still with no word from Stella, Desiree is back in Mallard with her eight-year-old daughter, Jude, having left her abusive ex-husband. When Jude is older, she makes her own escape from Mallard to attend college in Los Angeles. At a party, Jude glimpses a woman who looks exactly like Desiree—except she couldn’t be, because this woman is white. Eventually, the Vignes twins reunite, reckoning with the decisions that have shaped their lives. Effortlessly switching between the voices of Desiree, Stella, and their daughters, Bennett renders her characters and their struggles with great compassion, and explores the complicated state of mind that Stella finds herself in while passing as white. This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut. (June)

From the Publisher

Named a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, USA Today, GQ, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, and Bustle

Praise for The Vanishing Half

“[Bennett’s] second [book], The Vanishing Half, more than lives up to her early promise. . . more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling. It's also a great read that will transport you out of your current circumstances, whatever they are. . . Like The Mothers, this novel keeps you turning pages not just to find out what happens.” —NPR

“Bennett’s gorgeously written second novel, an ambitious meditation on race and identity, considers the divergent fates of twin sisters, born in the Jim Crow South, after one decides to pass for white. Bennett balances the literary demands of dynamic characterization with the historical and social realities of her subject matter.”The New York Times

“An eloquent new entry to literature on that most vital of subjects, identity, The Vanishing Half is the novel of the year.”—TIME

“A story of absolute, universal timelessness — a story of what it means to simply be, to grow up and define oneself and reinvent, to negotiate a place in the world. It's also a deeply American story, rigorously engaged with a country's racist past and present, while interrogative of its foundational values, like choice and legacy. For any era, it's an accomplished, affecting novel. For this moment, it's piercing, subtly wending its way toward questions about who we are and who we want to be….” Entertainment Weekly 
 

 “Beautifully written, thought-provoking and immersive… Issues of privilege, inter-generational trauma, the randomness and unfairness of it all, are teased apart in all their complexity, within a story that also touches on universal themes of love, identity and belonging…  The Vanishing Half, with its clever premise and strongly developed characters, is unputdownable and highly recommended.”  Associated Press

“Bennett pulls it off brilliantly… Few novels manage to remain interesting from start to finish, even — maybe especially — the brilliant ones. But… Bennett locks readers in and never lets them go… Stunning…She leaves any weighty parallels — between, for example, racial and gender determinism — to the reader. Her restraint is the novel’s great strength, and it’s tougher than it looks… The Vanishing Half speaks ultimately of a universal vanishing. It concerns the half of everyone that disappears once we leave home — love or hate the place, love or hate ourselves.” Los Angeles Times
 
“Provides a meditation on the nuance of race that feels important, now more than ever. It’s the kind of novel that demands to be read — a propulsive, heartfelt work that keeps its reader both glued to the page and chastened by the idea that soon the experience will come to an end. . . You can call The Vanishing Half an escape, but it’s a meaningful one.” —InStyle

"My hope is that the warranted praise Ms. Bennett receives for this novel will have less to do with her efficient handling of timely, or 'relevant,' subject matter than for her insights into the mysterious compound of what we call truth: a mixture of the identities we’re born with and those we create."Wall Street Journal
 
“Reinvention and erasure are two sides of the same coin. Bennett asks us to consider the meaning of authenticity when we are faced with racism, colorism, sexism and homophobia. What price do we pay to be ourselves? How many of us choose to escape what is expected of us? And what happens to the other side of the equation, the side we leave behind? The Vanishing Half answers all these questions in this exquisite story of love, survival and triumph.” The Washington Post

“A stunning page-turner… It’s a powerful story about family, compassion, identity and roots… You will be thinking about The Vanishing Half long after you turn the final page.” —Good Morning America

“Brilliant … The Vanishing Half is at once a crowning jewel within that body of work and a standalone achievement that transcends the subject, a deeply human exploration of relationships and one of the most un-put-downable reads of the year." – GQ
 
“Intricately plotted, exceedingly moving story…with insights into the social and cultural history of passing, while telling what is at heart a tender story about sisterhood, identity and, as Bennett said, 'the endlessly interesting question of which elements in our identity are innate, and which do we choose?'"San Francisco Chronicle

“Nuanced and deeply moving, The Vanishing Half is an unforgettable meditation on family, privilege, and belonging.” – Esquire 

“The legacy of Toni Morrison looms large in The Vanishing Half.” – Vox 

“If you’re looking to escape into a fictional story, Bennett brilliantly examines race and identity, family and history, and love and belonging—and it just may make you reflect on the realities of your own.” Forbes

“Breathtaking plot.” People

[The Vanishing Half] is a dazzling mosaic exploring racism, colorism, and the expectations we place on the ones we love the most.”Marie Claire

"I don't think I've read a book that covers passing in the way that this one does . . epic." —Kiley Reid in O, the Oprah Magazine
 
“Here, in her sensitive, elegant prose, [Bennett] evokes both the strife of racism, and what it does to a person even if they can evade some of its elements.”Vogue

“Bennett creates a striking portrait of racial identity in America.” TIME
 
 
“Bennett writes like a master, reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout.” —BookPage
 
“One of Bennett’s gifts as a writer is this: Her plots entertain you while her characters make you think. In this case, about race, gender, privilege, and the ways an identity can be built, challenged, and rebuilt.” – Goop

“This is sure to be one of 2020’s best and boldest… A tale of family, identity, race, history, and perception, Bennett’s next masterpiece is a triumph of character-driven narrative.” —Elle
 
“A marvel…The Vanishing Half is an intergenerational examination of identity, and what it’s like to grow up in a body you’ve been conditioned to feel ashamed of. It’s a poignant family story that doesn’t shy away from the intersections of race, class, and gender—all while capturing the reader’s heart and mind in a way only Bennett can.” —The Rumpus
 
"Irresistible ... an intergenerational epic of race and reinvention, love and inheritance, divisions made and crossed, binding trauma, and the ever-present past." —Booklist, STARRED Review
 
"Assured and magnetic. . .Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism…calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. . . .  [a] rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed."—Kirkus, STARRED review
 

"Impressive … This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel, which gripped me from the first word to the last. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book.” —Bernardine Evaristo, Booker Prize winning author of Girl, Woman, Other

“The detail and the feeling showcased in every sentence Brit Bennett writes is breath taking. The Vanishing Half is a novel that shows just how human emotion, uncertainty and longing can be captured and put on paper.” —Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie
 

"A novel of immense, shining, powerful  intelligence.”  —Deborah Levy, two-time Booker shortlisted novelist

“An impressive and arresting novel. Perceptive in its insights and poised in execution, this is an important, timely examination of the impact of race on personality, experience and relationships.” —Diana Evans, the Orange Award winning author of Ordinary People
 

The Vanishing Half should mark the induction of Brit Bennett into the small group of likely successors to Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen..”  —Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Library Journal

06/05/2020

Is identity something we're born with, or something we choose? This is the overarching theme of Bennett's follow-up to The Mothers. Desiree and Stella are twins born in Mallard, LA, a tiny town populated by light-skinned African Americans. The twins run away to New Orleans as teenagers and eventually take radically different paths. Desiree marries a dark-skinned black lawyer but leaves him and returns to Mallard with their daughter, Jude, who is also much darker than the town approves of. Stella passes for white and marries a successful businessman who knows nothing of her past, eventually relocating to Los Angeles. Years later, Jude (who has a long-term relationship with a transgender man) and Stella's daughter, Kennedy, meet by chance. Near the beginning of the novel, when Desiree enlists a childhood sweetheart, Early, to find Stella, the story feels like it could go in the direction of a thriller like Gone Girl. Instead, the focus shifts to Jude, and readers realize that Bennett is up to something else. VERDICT With large sections focusing on the viewpoints of Desiree, Jude, Stella, and Kennedy in turn, Bennett allows readers' perspectives and sympathies to shift, providing empathy for their difficult choices. [See Prepub Alert, 12/9/19.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2020-03-15
Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525536291
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 25
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

One

 

The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they'd been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they'd witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she'd left at sixteen-still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and-Lou paused here, a bit of a showman-she was holding the hand of a girl, eight or so, and black as tar.

 

"Blueblack," he said. "Like she flown direct from Africa."

 

Lou's Egg House splintered into a dozen different conversations. The line cook wondered if it had been Desiree after all, since Lou was turning sixty in May and still too vain to wear his eyeglasses. The waitress said that it had to be-even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl and it certainly couldn't have been that other one. The diners, abandoning grits and eggs on the counter, didn't care about that Vignes foolishness-who on earth was the dark child? Could she possibly be Desiree's?

 

"Well, who else's could it be?" Lou said. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser, dabbing his damp forehead.

 

"Maybe it's an orphan that got took in."

 

"I just don't see how nothin that black coulda come out Desiree."

 

"Desiree seem like the type to take in no orphan to you?"

 

Of course she didn't. She was a selfish girl. If they remembered anything about Desiree, it was that and most didn't recall much more. The twins had been gone fourteen years, nearly as long as anyone had ever known them. Vanished from bed after the Founder's Day dance, while their mother slept right down the hall. One morning, the twins crowded in front of their bathroom mirror, four identical girls fussing with their hair. The next, the bed was empty, the covers pulled back like any other day, taut when Stella made it, crumpled when Desiree did. The town spent all morning searching for them, calling their names through the woods, wondering stupidly if they had been taken. Their disappearance seemed as sudden as the rapture, all of Mallard the sinners left behind.

 

Naturally, the truth was neither sinister nor mystical; the twins soon surfaced in New Orleans, selfish girls running from responsibility. They wouldn't stay away long. City living would tire them out. They'd run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother's porch. But they never returned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.

 

Now she was back, Lord knows why. Homesick, maybe. Missing her mother after all those years or wanting to flaunt that dark daughter of hers. In Mallard, nobody married dark. Nobody left either, but Desiree had already done that. Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.

 

In Lou's Egg House, the crowd dissolved, the line cook snapping on his hairnet, the waitress counting nickels on the table, men in coveralls gulping coffee before heading out to the refinery. Lou leaned against the smudged window, staring out at the road. He ought to call Adele Vignes. Didn't seem right for her to be ambushed by her own daughter, not after everything she'd already been through. Now Desiree and that dark child. Lord. He reached for the phone.

 

"You think they fixin to stay?" the line cook asked.

 

"Who knows? She sure seem in a hurry though," Lou said. "Wonder what she hurryin to. Look might past me, didn't wave or nothin."

 

"Uppity. And what reason she got to be uppity?"

 

"Lord," Lou said. "I never seen a child that black before."

 

It was a strange town.

 

Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he'd inherited from the father who'd once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place. His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she'd shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken. Maybe that's what made him first dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He'd married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.

 

Soon others came. Soon idea and place became inseparable, and Mallard carried throughout the rest of St. Landry Parish. Colored people whispered about it, wondered about it. White people couldn't believe it even existed. When St. Catherine's was built in 1938, the diocese sent over a young priest from Dublin who arrived certain that he was lost. Didn't the bishop tell him that Mallard was a colored town? Well, who were these people walking about? Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they ever tell the difference?

 

By the time the Vignes twins were born, Alphonse Decuir was dead, long gone. But his great-great-great-granddaughters inherited his legacy, whether they wanted to or not. Even Desiree, who complained before every Founder's Day picnic, who rolled her eyes when the founder was mentioned in school, as if none of that business had anything to do with her. This would stick after the twins disappeared. How Desiree never wanted to be a part of the town that was her birthright. How she felt that you could flick away history like shrugging a hand off your shoulder. You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.

 

And yet, if Alphonse Decuir could have strolled through the town he'd once imagined, he would have been thrilled by the sight of his great-great-great-granddaughters. Twin girls, creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair. He would have marveled at them. For the child to be a little more perfect than the parents. What could be more wonderful than that?

 

The Vignes twins vanished on August 14, 1954, right after the Founder's Day dance, which, everyone realized later, had been their plan all along. Stella, the clever one, would have predicted that the town would be distracted. Sun-drunk from the long barbecue in the town square, where Willie Lee, the butcher, smoked racks of ribs and brisket and hot links. Then the speech by Mayor Fontenot, Father Cavanaugh blessing the food, the children already fidgety, picking flecks of crispy chicken skin from plates held by praying parents. A long afternoon of celebration while the band played, the night ending in a dance in the school gymnasium, where the grown folks stumbled home after too many cups of Trinity Thierry's rum punch, the few hours back in that gym pulling them tenderly toward their younger selves.

 

On any other night, Sal Delafosse might have peeked out his window to see two girls walking under moonlight. Adele Vignes would have heard the floorboards creak. Even Lou LeBon, closing down the diner, might have seen the twins through the foggy glass panes. But on Founder's Day, Lou's Egg House closed early. Sal, feeling suddenly spry, rocked to sleep with his wife. Adele snored through her cups of rum punch, dreaming of dancing with her husband at homecoming. No one saw the twins sneak out, exactly how they'd intended.

 

The idea hadn't been Stella's at all-during that final summer, it was Desiree who'd decided to run away after the picnic. Which should not have been surprising, perhaps. Hadn't she, for years, told anyone who would listen that she couldn't wait to leave Mallard? Mostly she'd told Stella, who indulged her with the patience of a girl long used to hearing delusions. To Stella, leaving Mallard seemed as fantastical as flying to China. Technically possible, but that didn't mean that she could ever imagine herself doing it. But Desiree had always fantasized about life outside of this little farm town. When the twins saw Roman Holiday at the nickel theater in Opelousas, she'd barely been able to hear the dialogue over the other colored kids in the balcony, rowdy and bored, tossing popcorn at the white people sitting below. But she'd pressed against the railing, transfixed, imagining herself gliding above the clouds to some far-off place like Paris or Rome. She'd never even been to New Orleans, only two hours away.

 

"Only thing waitin for you out there is wildness," her mother always said, which of course, only made Desiree want to go even more. The twins knew a girl named Farrah Thibodeaux who, a year ago, had fled to the city and it sounded so simple. How hard could leaving be if Farrah, one year older than they, had done it? Desiree imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress. She'd only starred in one play in her life-Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade-but when she'd taken center stage, she'd felt, for a second, that maybe Mallard wasn't the dullest town in America. Her classmates cheering for her, Stella receding into the darkness of the gym, Desiree feeling like only herself for once, not a twin, not one half of an incomplete pair. But the next year, she'd lost the role of Viola in Twelfth Night to the mayor's daughter, after her father had made a last-second donation to the school, and after an evening sulking in the stage wing as Mary Lou Fontenot beamed and waved to the crowd, she told her sister that she could not wait to leave Mallard.

 

"You always say that," Stella said.

 

"Because it's always true."

 

But it wasn't, not really. She didn't hate Mallard as much as she felt trapped by its smallness. She'd trampled the same dirt roads her entire life; she'd carved her initials on the bottom of school desks that her mother had once used, and that her children would someday, feeling her jagged scratching with their fingers. And the school was in the same building it'd always been, all the grades together, so that even moving up to Mallard High hadn't felt like a progression at all, just a step across the hallway. Maybe she would have been able to endure all this if it weren't for everyone's obsession with lightness. Syl Guillory and Jack Richard arguing in the barber shop about whose wife was fairer, or her mother yelling after her to always wear a hat, or people believing ridiculous things, like drinking coffee or eating chocolate while pregnant might turn a baby dark. Her father had been so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn his arm over to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him, so how could she care about lightness after that?

 

She barely remembered him now; it scared her a little. Life before he died seemed like only a story she'd been told. A time when her mother hadn't risen at dawn to ride buses clean to white people's houses or taken in extra washing on the weekends, clotheslines zigzagging across their living room. The twins used to love hiding behind the quilts and sheets before Desiree realized how humiliating it was, your home always filled with strangers' dirty things.

 

"If it was true, then you'd do something about it," Stella said.

 

She was always so practical. On Sunday nights, Stella ironed her clothes for the entire week, unlike Desiree, who rushed around each morning to find a clean dress and finish the homework crushed in the bottom of her book bag. Stella liked school. She'd earned top marks in arithmetic since kindergarten, and during her sophomore year, Mrs. Belton even allowed her to teach a few classes to the younger grades. She'd given Stella a worn calculus textbook from her own Spelman days, and for weeks, Stella lay in bed trying to decipher the odd shapes and long strings of numbers nestled in parentheses. Once, Desiree flipped through the book, but the equations spanned like an ancient language and Stella snatched the book back, as if by looking at it, Desiree had sullied it somehow.

 

Stella wanted to become a schoolteacher at Mallard High someday. But every time Desiree imagined her own future in Mallard, life carrying on forever as it always had, she felt something clawing at her throat. When she mentioned leaving, Stella never wanted to talk about it.

 

"We can't leave Mama," she always said, and chastened, Desiree fell silent. She's already lost so much, was the part that never needed to be said.

 

On the last day of tenth grade, their mother came home from work and announced that the twins would not be returning to school in the fall. They'd had enough schooling, she said, easing gingerly onto the couch to rest her feet, and she needed them to work. The twins were sixteen then and stunned, although maybe Stella should have noticed the bills that arrived more frequently, or Desiree should have wondered why, in the past month alone, their mother had sent her to Fontenot's twice to ask for more credit. Still, the girls stared at each other in silence as their mother unlaced her shoes. Stella looked like she'd been socked in the gut.

 

"But I can work and go to school too," she said. "I'll find a way-"

 

"You can't, honey," her mother said. "You gotta be there during the day. You know I wouldn't do this if I didn't need to."

 

"I know, but-"

 

"And Nancy Belton got you teachin the class. What more do you need to learn?"

 

She had already found them a job cleaning a house in Opelousas and they would start in the morning. Desiree hated helping her mother clean. Plunging her hands into dirty dishwater, stooping over mops, knowing that someday, her fingers would also grow fat and gnarled from scrubbing white folks' clothes. But at least there would be no more tests or studying or memorizing, no more listening to lectures, bored to tears. She was an adult now. Finally, life would really begin. But as the twins started dinner, Stella remained silent and glum, rinsing carrots under the sink.

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