Poet and novelist Howe (The White Slave; In the Middle of Nowhere; etc.) dishes out more of her favorite ingredients here: studies of blacks and whites, poverty and privilege, love and disillusionment, all served up in small, elegantly arranged bouquets. Heroine Gemma comes from a blue-blood family. Her father is a proper Bostonian; her mother is descended from a line of aristocratic, though mad, Italians. From this Italian heritage Gemma gets the coloring--black hair, olive skin--that will eventually lead to confusion about her racial background. When she is mistaken for a mulatto, Gemma decides to play along--inventing a new past and gaining access to a world she's never known before. It's a world of poverty, politics and cheap wine, and Gemma finds herself thriving on the mix. Her new identity is both liberating and exhilarating--""like being in love with the new person she now was""--except for the weight of having to maintain a lie. Finally, of course, she's found out. Her new world has begun to crumble anyway, and we leave Gemma groping for a new path. There is extraordinary power packed into the pages of this short novel, but, ultimately, the story crumbles too. Howe has such a tangle of ideologies here--the racial climate of the North; the havoc of unhappy families; the confusion of coming of age in the 1960's--that, somewhere along the way, we lose the message. What has Gemma's exercise in deception really meant? Howe's sketchy, poetic prose style doesn't help. It's lovely to look at and easy to swallow, but, all in all, it leaves us hungry--and my-stified.