Book Review: Passing

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.

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