I’m always intrigued by conventions and assumptions that are different in the US to how they are over here in the UK, particularly when it comes to issues of race and class. I can’t see anyone over here going to the lengths Nora does to conceal their racial background under the same circumstances (although anything’s possible); however, the idea of someone being embarrassed by their parents giving away markers of a class other than the one they’ve claimed for themselves is a long-running mainstay of many forms of humour. It must be said that Nora’s childhood, particularly following her mother’s death, was especially horrific, but I’m not sure that justifies the levels of deception she employs to re-imagine her history upon becoming an adult.
Nora is the green-eyed, fair-complexioned daughter of an African American woman working in domestic service and a long absent white father. From the age of nine, Nora is sexually abused by her mother’s employer, while his wife turns a blind eye. Then, following the death of Nora’s mother, the couple adopt Nora and pass her off as their own child: bleaching and styling her hair, then sending her off to an exclusive, almost entirely white boarding school. Nora is one of the popular girls, but also mean: when a scholarship girl recognises that Nora is no more white than she herself is, Nora sets out to ensure the girl is expelled. However, a revelation from her adoptive mother soon after sends Nora running away from the school herself and making a new life for herself in New York.
Now a successful men’s fashion stylist, Nora is on the verge of marrying her white, over-privileged fiancé, who knows nothing of her background. Nora has surrounded herself with employees whose family histories are just as complex as the one she is concealing, while her best friends outside work seem to be mostly white. Nora lives in a state of constant fear that her secret will be uncovered, not helped by her fiancé talking about his mother’s prejudices, while reminding her of how popular she is with his family. Of course, Nora’s worst fears seem to be realised when her old rival from school shows up and begins blackmailing her and slowly unpicking everything Nora has worked to build. Nora eventually resorts to drastic measures to save herself and her secret, although we’re left somewhat in suspense as to how that plan works out.
I really couldn’t warm to this book. Very few of the characters were remotely likable, and while the author did a reasonable job of pointing out all kinds of unconscious assumptions white folks make about race, she also had Nora use a term, which I’ve only heard Americans use, and which at least some of my Irish friends living in the UK find just as offensive as I thought they might. Another author I’ll sadly be avoiding in future.
She’s blossomed from a wealthy surgeon’s beautiful daughter to elegant socialite to being the top fashion stylist in the country. And Nora Mackenzie is only days away from marrying into one of New York’s richest, most powerful families. But her fairy tale rise is rooted in an incredible deception—one scandal away from turning her perfect world to ashes . . .
What no one knows is that Nora is the biracial daughter of a Caribbean woman and a long-gone white father. Adopted—and abused—by her mother’s employer, then sent to an exclusive boarding school to buy her silence, Nora found that “passing” as a white woman could give her everything she never had.
Now, an ex-classmate who Nora betrayed many years ago has returned to her life to even the score. Her machinations are turning Nora’s privilege into one gilded trap after another. Running out of choices, Nora must decide how far she will go to protect a lie or give up and finally face the truth.
Read an excerpt.