Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen

First line: It was the last letter in Irene Redfield's little pile of morning mail.

This slender novel reveals a deep, rich, emotional story as well as a snapshot of life in 1929 Harlem. Through the awkward reunion of Irene and Clare, we're also offered a glimpse into the complicated world of identity and colorism and the soul-crushing pain of being othered.

Undoubtedly a timely read no matter when, this book felt especially important to me in this time of Black Lives Matter and the importance of skin tone in film casting. (And speaking of casting, the upcoming film version of this book has been cast and I'm so excited!)

There's nothing oblique or obfuscated in this story (other than Clare's behavior, of course). Irene and Clare are young black women, married with children. But Irene is proud of her identity and her family and to her surprise, gorgeous Clare has passed herself as white, and is married to a very racist white man. The bulk of the story is about how Irene and Clare navigate this terrible secret -- when Clare seems so close to flaunting it -- and it's obvious Clare is intrigued, perhaps even jealous, of Irene and her life.  The vibe of the story reminded of Kate Chopin and A Doll's House with its undercurrent of frustrated stagnation forced on women by society.

This edition includes an extremely brainy Critical Forward by Mae Henderson that sadly went over my head; her notes on the text, however, were fascinating and appreciated and gave me deeper understanding to the clues Larsen peppered in the narrative.

I read Justina Ireland's Dread Nation immediately after this one, and while the two books couldn't be more different, they're thematic cousins. One grounded in fantasy, the other reality, but centered both on the struggle women of color experience in trying to survive -- never mind survive happily.
"I'm beginning to believe," she murmured, "that no one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe."

Title: Passing
Author: Nella Larsen
Genre: Fiction (New York City / African-American Life / Marriage / Parenthood / 1920s / Tragedy)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Modern Library (2002)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: The Classics Club


Comments

  1. It's so sad that people felt they had to try to "pass" back then, isn't it? I can't imagine doing that and being married to a racist. This sounds like an important story.

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