Wednesday, October 12, 2022

126. Passing

Passing. Nella Larsen. (Introduced by Emily Bernard). 1929. 160 pages. [Source: Library]

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

Premise/plot: Irene Redfield, our protagonist, has a love-hate relationship with Clare Kendry, a former friend with whom she grew up. After Clare's father died, the two lost touch if you will. Clare--perhaps slowly and semi-deliberately, perhaps quickly and very deliberately--cut ties with her past (including her whole [racial] community.) Clare, you see, was taken in by her white aunts. Being light-skinned and seeing a world of opportunities ahead of her, made a choice to pass for white full-time even going so far as to marry an out and out racist. Meanwhile, Irene, remained--and married--in the African-American community. 

The story begins with a chance encounter. When these two see each other--quite accidentally--they are both passing for white. [They are in a hotel which prohibits blacks.] Irene does not recognize Clare for the longest time. She's a bit shocked with this reunion. She is hesitant to keep in touch. Especially when she finds out [a few days later] that Clare married such an apologetically racist man. Why would she invite her and another former friend (Gertrude, I believe) into her home only to be insulted. [True, he doesn't know that his wife and her friends are African American, but if he knew, they'd be a big problem.] 

If only the meeting had been oh-so-brief and contained to that one week! 

I mentioned the love-hate relationship, well, the story turns much, much, much darker as it progresses. Leading up to an ambiguous ending (of sorts). But you won't find spoilers here.

My thoughts: The introduction is scholarly, as you'd expect. I suppose there is always a scholarly, academic, intellectual, weighty way to read a book, particularly a classic. But never forget that there are more relaxed ways to just sit back and enjoy a book as well. My approach was not to read in such a way as to produce an essay. My choice--for better or worse, right or wrong--was not to spend time focusing on themes but on the oh-so-human characters. 

This is Irene's story start to finish. I think there might be a temptation to shift the focus solely to Clare. But we see Clare through Irene's eyes. These are Irene's memories and experiences. And the judgments--whether we agree or dare to disagree--are Irene's judgments. Irene sees Clare and both loves and hates what she sees. Clare infuriates and fascinates. (Not that those are Irene's only feelings, mind you, just that she can hold such contrary, conflicted feelings at the exact same time.) 

Clare--or at least Irene's perception of Clare--reminds me, personally, of Scarlett O'Hara or Becky Sharp. 

Irene is NOT a saint. The story being painted--or presented, I guess is the right word--may be biased in a way to present Clare in a negative light. 


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Brona said...

I like your comnparison to Scarlet & Becky. Clare certainly came across as being pretty narcisstic.