This was a quick and very engaging read about twin sisters growing up in a southern town populated entirely by Black people — but Black people who pride themselves on how light-skinned they are. And these two girls, Desiree and Stella Vignes, are not only smart, and ambitious, they are very light-skinned and thus considered very beautiful by the standards of their community. (The “colorism,” as it’s sometimes called, within African-American communities that privileges lighter skin over darker and is, of course, an outgrowth of the larger issue of racism, is a major theme in this novel and was a little shocking to a white reader like me who’s unfamiliar with Black American culture in the South). After the girls run away from home to find new lives and new opportunities at age 16, Stella discovers she can “pass” as white in a place where no-one knows her, and cuts all ties with her family and her past in order to reinvent herself. She pays a heavy price, psychologically and in other ways, for living a lie.
Desiree, meanwhile, ends up back home as a single mom raising her daughter who, because of Desiree’s short-lived married to a darker-skinned man, is much darker than her mother. In the next generation, the mystery of missing Stella and the long lie she’s been hiding comes unravelled as Desiree’s and Stella’s daughters meet each other. An important subplot here is the relationship that Desiree’s daughter, Jude, enters into with a transgender man, which allows the author to explore the ways in which both race and gender define or do not define who people are.
I found this novel easy to get immersed in. It was a quick read but gave me a lot to think about.