Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.
Passing was an interesting book. It followed Irene, an African American woman in the 1920’s, and how her life changes when an old friend named Clare comes back into her life.
As the title suggests, the book is about “passing” race. In this case, African Americans passing as whites. The characters were certainly intriguing. Clare was unpredictable and a little scary. She didn’t really care about anything except her own desires. Irene, on the other hand, believes that she cares about her family, and she does for the most part, although there are some things that she can only see her way.
The book takes place over several years and is written in three parts. The layout almost reminds me of a play, which is an interesting way to lay out a novel. The first part sets up the characters and the idea of “passing”. The second delves deeper into the issue and establishes who each of the characters are, two years after the first part. The third part is like a finale. Everything spins out of control until it comes crashing down in the end.
Passing deals with issues that we are still dealing with today, no matter how far we think we have come. It is interesting to see how the characters in this book regard racism, and what it actually means (for them at least) to pretend to be someone (something?) they are not.
I didn’t necessarily love this book, but it was a very thoughtful story, and I am glad to have read it. I would recommend this to lovers of literature, and anyone who wants a new perspective on racial issues both today and in the past.
I am going to give Passing three out of four hearts.