Book Review — Passing by Nella Larsen

  • Genre: Fiction, Classics
  • Publish date: April 1929
  • Number of pages: 160 pages
  • Support local! Buy the book on BookShop!

Irene Redfield is a Black woman living an affluent, comfortable life with her husband and children in the thriving neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. When she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare Kendry, who is similarly light-skinned, Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for a white woman after severing ties to her past–even hiding the truth from her racist husband.

Clare finds herself drawn to Irene’s sense of ease and security with her Black identity and longs for the community (and, increasingly, the woman) she lost. Irene is both riveted and repulsed by Clare and her dangerous secret, as Clare begins to insert herself–and her deception–into every part of Irene’s stable existence. First published in 1929, Larsen’s brilliant examination of the various ways in which we all seek to “pass,” is as timely as ever.

Via Goodreads

Rating: 4/5

A classic novel from the Harlem Rennaissance that explores the issues of colorism in America and remains relevant today– albeit colorism does manifest in different ways today.

Nella Larsen analyzes the decision that a Black person may make to pass or not through two light-skinned characters: Irene, who does not pass and lives with her family in Harlem, and Clare, who has decided to pass as a white woman married to a white man. For both women, we see the internal struggles of their decisions. For Clare, we see her yearning for her life before passing and regretting the decision she made. For Irene, she does occasionally pass when out in the town, but for the most part, she and her family do not pass and experience racism. Her husband expresses that he would like them to live outside the US.

However, the real conflict starts to arise as Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life and gets closer to Irene’s husband. There is danger in Clare’s actions because to the outside world, she is a white woman hanging around a Black family. Irene feels fear for the repercussions of what could happen if Clare’s secret is revealed especially since Clare’s husband is racist.

As the reader, we are able to form our own opinions about both women. For me personally, the idea of passing, of not staying true to yourself, and having to lie and hide part of yourself seems like a heavy burden to carry throughout life. The ending is ambiguous and makes you question the extents people will go to maintain their way of life.

Recommendations for further readings:

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip
  • The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to know!

One Reply to “Book Review — Passing by Nella Larsen”

  1. I read this book in February as the Mocha Girls read book of the month. It really left me with mixed feelings. I plan on watching the movie now to see what the differences are. In our bookclub monthly meeting, we had a lively discussion about Claire and her inability to accept no. Her lack of boundaries, changed the trajectory of all she encountered.

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