Does love have a color? That's the question 22-year-old Shelby Coles asks in this tale of class and race consciousness set in Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s.
On the eve of her marriage to Meade Wyler, a white jazz pianist, Shelby, a light-skinned beauty raised in Negro bourgeois society, finds her privileged world crumbling. Their union upsets the self-important community and further strains her parents' already fractured partnership. Her father, a physician, considers his daughter's decision a betrayal. Her philanthropist mother applauds the daring choice. Meanwhile, "nut brown" Lute McNeil, a newcomer to the Vineyard, has his own designs on Shelby.
West, the only surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, started this novel more than four decades ago but could not get a publisher interested. Given its focus on interracial marriage, it may have proved too provocative in its own time and too politically incorrect after that. Today, however, West's incisive portraits of a rising (and snobbish) black middle class seem like ironic gems, reflecting both an attitude and an era.
West excels at depicting a group defined by its desire for professional achievement as well as its petty caste and color distinctions. And though the novel's penchant for melodrama and sometimes sketchy characters strain credibility, West brings a graceful style and an insider's knowledge of an elite echelon to this fascinating and unforgettable tale. (Doubleday, $20)