Passing by Nella Larsen

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.

349929I’m not sure I’ve read a novel of 114 pages that contains more ideas, more things to talk about and consider than Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic, Passing. As much as it is a story about race in America in the 1920’s, it is also about friendship, marriage, class, and motherhood. The awakening of a childhood friendship between two light-skinned African American women sets both on a collision course with unnerving and surprising results.

Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without any feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. 

Passing opens with Irene Redfield receiving a letter from Clare that instantly takes her back to a chance meeting in Chicago two years prior. There Irene became reacquainted with Clare at a hotel rooftop restaurant, in a not very comfortable conversation where Clare, the granddaughter of a white man, nonchalantly told Irene that she’d been passing for white.

“You know, ‘Rene, I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls, girls like you and Margaret Hammer and Esther Dawson and – oh, lots of others – never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”

Irene, who is strangely under Clare’s spell, yet finds what she’s doing “dangerous” and “abhorrent,” decides after the meeting that she doesn’t want anything more to do with Clare. But Clare persuades her to come by before she leaves town. There she finds another old acquaintance, Gertrude, who is also passing, but with the distinction that her husband knows of her true heritage. Clare, we find out, is hiding her racial background from her husband, John “Jack” Bellew. Bellew is a repulsive loud-mouthed bigot, totally unaware that he’s married to a mixed-race woman. He goes so far as to call her “Nig” because she has gotten darker as their marriage has progressed. The whole conversation with Jack and Gertrude is most uncomfortable for both the characters and the reader. After the meeting, Irene receives a conciliatory note from Clare, but she never thinks that she and Clare will meet again.

But they do indeed meet again, as Clare can’t help herself but reach out to the African American community she misses desperately. Irene, herself preoccupied with her duties and the stability of being a mother and wife, reluctantly lets Clare in to her social circle in Harlem. We learn that Irene and her husband Brian are on shaky ground in their relationship, and Irene is increasingly mad to hang on to her marriage and family.

It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him they she truly desired him to be so. 

I don’t want to spoil anything else in this slim, yet jam-packed classic. Clare and Irene are opposites in temperament and lifestyle, and yet they orbit one another as if magnetically attracted to each other. There are consequences that are compelling and almost shocking, with an ending that leaves the reader pondering what actually happened. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Larsen writes beautifully and thoughtfully about the racial intricacies of 1920’s New York City; there’s a great scene between Irene and Brian where they fundamentally disagree about what to tell their sons about the racial realities they’ll face as they grow up. She also writes about a marriage on rocky ground, and portrays Irene as a sympathetic yet not warm-and-fuzzy character. She’s someone I felt like I understood but didn’t particularly like (which is fine, I don’t have to like characters to find them compelling.) In the end I found myself questioning Irene’s reliability as a narrator. There is plenty to discuss and this would make an excellent choice for a book group!

I’m looking forward to reading Larsen’s other work, Quicksand, which Melanie at GTL tells me she prefers to Passing. And she’s written some short stories I’d like to check out as well. I highly recommend this to those who are looking for a classic novel that’s not too long but full of emotion, plot, and beautiful writing!

(With much thanks to Fiction Fan for inspiring me to read this novel. You can read her stellar review here.)

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27 thoughts on “Passing by Nella Larsen

  1. I think I mentioned that in Quicksand we get this amazing narrator who encounters every type of black stereotype written about at the time, which makes it like a crash course in the time period. I can’t wait for you to read it, and I really enjoyed this review! I forgot the books are so short; I’m tempted to reread them ASAP.

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  2. Have you read Mildred Taylor’s ‘Let the Circle Be Unbroken’ which also deals with the question of passing for white, but in a children’s novel. I recommend it and its forerunner, ‘Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry’ if you haven’t read them.

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  3. Great review and thanks for the link! I’m glad you enjoyed it too – I loved that it dealt with other things than just race, like marriage and community. It made it seem so much deeper and the characters felt real because you got to see more than just one aspect of their lives. Still haven’t read Quicksand – one day!

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  4. Great review Laila. I didn’t know about this book or even the idea of ‘passing’ until I read this review. I usually don’t read classics but I am definitely intrigued by this one and I like the fact that its short. I will look out for it.

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  5. I read this one in a compilation of her works and have always blurred it with all the rest, but Ali’s comment there quickly brought back which of the stories this one is. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her other work as well!

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    1. Ha ha, Fiction Fan really knows how to highlight exciting classics! Oh yes, I appreciated that it was on the shorter side. I’m trying to be better about slowing down in my reading, and trying not to worry about reading pace, but it’s still nice to mark a book “finished!”

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  6. 2018 is going to be the year I finally read this book! I just read Bernice McFadden’s book Glorious this past weekend, and the central character in that is partly inspired by Nella Larsen. So it’s a clear sign that the time has come. I hear wonderful things!

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  7. Wow– What a compelling review, Laila! I am ashamed to admit I’ve never read anything by Nella Larsen. This seems to be your first experience, as well? I am pulled more towards her short stories than her longer works, but none of them are super long, are they? Regardless, I’ve sort of avoided Larsen’s work growing up feeling like I wouldn’t “get it” as a white woman. I realize the error of that now that I’m an adult, but I think it’s a fair childhood fear, don’t you?

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    1. Thanks, Jackie! Yes, her two major works (Passing and Quicksand) are both under 200 pages. I wasn’t even aware of this book until maybe 10 years ago; it’s a shame I didn’t encounter it all in school. Anyway, I think it’s understandable that you were wary of it when you were younger. I most definitely think you would be able to engage with it on many levels now.

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  8. Oh, you make this sound so good that I wonder why I haven’t read it yet! And, you know what? Your review has also made me realize that most of the “wives” in our Literary Wives books are white! I can’t believe I’m only just realizing this. We do have one coming up that will help change that (Stay With Me by Adebayo). Do you think there’s enough about the marriage in this book for us to consider it for our group?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Naomi, I think this would be a great choice for Literary Wives. There is a lot in the relationship between Irene and Brian that Larsen leaves unsaid, or just alludes to, that would be ripe for discussion. And Clare’s relationship with her awful bigoted husband would also factor in. Add in the race element and you’d have a lot to write about for Literary Wives.

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