It’s accurate to describe Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine as a novel about race (or, more specifically, race-changing). But race—along with grief, existential questions of identity, and the dynamics of a resurrected friendship—is only one element in this compelling first novel.
Kelly Thorndike, a public radio producer grieving the loss of his wife and daughter, runs into Martin, a friend from high school. He’s changed: Martin, who was white, is now black. Martin explains his methods, and his motivation. Ever since his days at a predominantly black elementary school, he felt out of place in his white body. Martin hires Kelly to write an article about him to so as to promote “racial reassignment surgery,” which he hopes to develop into a big business. Martin and his colleagues in this burgeoning, not-quite-legitimate industry see the surgery as a way to help people live better lives, more in touch with their ideal selves: “Who can say, if we want to get terribly theoretical, how much aggregate happiness we could provide the world, if we gave people the option to be something other than what they are?”
Your Face in Mine grows suspenseful in its last hundred pages, as Kelly realizes that Martin may not be entirely honest about his intentions for him. At the height of the novel’s suspense, Kelly makes a decision that serves the plot more than himself. This contrivance mars the novel but hardly ruins it.
It’s a little uneasy how Row treats race as an existential question more than a brutal social reality. For all the whites who, like Martin, wanted to be a person of color because they felt like one, how many people of color have wanted to be white because of the advantages that whiteness confers? Though Kelly has his moments of white guilt and privilege-checking, more attention is dedicated to Martin’s love of blackness.
Its treatment of race may seem a world away from headlines (especially recent ones from Ferguson, MO), but Your Face in Mine succeeds in addressing race without automatically placing it in a narrative of oppression and resistance.
–Published August 14th by Riverhead Books