Irene Redfield is a light-skinned Black woman who, in public places, occasionally passes for white, when she finds it convenient. Irene is a practical, determined person. She was born and raised in Chicago but now lives in Harlem with her husband, Brian, and their two boys. Brian is a successful doctor but dislikes his work. He would have preferred to move the entire family to another, less racist country long ago, but Irene has always insisted that the family belongs in New York.

One day, while back in Chicago for a visit, Irene has a chance meeting with a childhood friend, Clare. Clare is very different from Irene—self-centered, melodramatic, and reckless. Clare is even lighter-skinned than Irene, and in fact she has married a white man, John Bellew, without telling him that she is Black. They have a daughter. The Bellews live mostly in Europe but often spend time in the Unites States, depending on where John Bellew’s work in international banking takes him. Irene finds Clare strangely fascinating but does not like her company. She only reluctantly agrees to visit Clare at the Bellews’ hotel suite. Clare has invited a mutual light-skinned friend of theirs to join them. When John Bellew arrives, Irene is shocked to learn that he is a vehement racist. He openly declares that he hates Black people, not knowing that he is speaking to three of them.

Two years later, the Bellews have relocated to New York. Clare resumes contact with Irene, and Irene is not firm enough to insist that Clare leave her alone, if only to keep Clare’s secret safe. When Clare learns that Irene is planning a charity event at which upper-class Black people and white people will mingle, Clare insists on attending. Soon, she is at the Redfields’ home regularly and has become part of their social circle. In time, Irene suspects that Clare and Brian are having an affair. The Bellews are due to move back to Europe soon, but a chance downtown encounter between John Bellew and Irene, while Irene is with a darker-skinned friend, creates a crisis. If Bellew deduces that Clare, like Irene, is Black, he may divorce Clare and leave her free to pursue Brian.

The threat that Clare poses for Irene’s marriage and family life is unexpectedly removed when Bellew tracks Clare down at an all-Black party hosted by friends of the Redfields in their apartment atop a high residential building. Bellew angrily confronts Clare, but Clare smiles and acts unconcerned. When Irene angrily moves toward Clare and puts her hand on Clare’s arm, Clare tumbles out a nearby open window, to her death. The cause of her fall is unclear—whether she fainted and fell by accident, or fell deliberately. It is also possible that Irene pushed Clare, but no one accuses her.