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Passing - Review

With Netflix introducing their all-new "Boovie" outlet (Movie + Book. Get it?), Passing by Nella Larson is the first book club read from the program getting the Hollywood treatment. But before I ran to watch the movie, I wanted to dive into the book first. Since it is such a short book, I decided to experience this in audio form, with the alluring sounds of Tessa Thompson narrating. Who knew I needed Thompson to seduce my stories for me?!

"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."

I can start with the apparent history lesson about black people passing off as white, either as a survival skill or embarrassment to their ethnicity, but I won't. That's the "shell shock" of this book. But I want to take a different approach to the novel. I want to figure out the root of Irene's obsession with her best friend, Clare.

In the three acts of the novel, we are pulled into the world of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, both women who can pass as white. While Irene only does this out of necessity, Clare has stationed her whole life behind it. It's fascinating yet dangerous, especially during the time of Jim Crow. In the first act of the book, Irene and Clare discuss the pros and cons of passing. Both have agreed that they've gotten what they wanted in life, whether they jumped over the racial line or not, but both women wonder what life would be if the shoe were on the other foot. Later in the story, both women formed obsessions with what-ifs.

While Clare is rediscovering her roots as a Black woman and inserting herself in Irene's life, Irene has mixed feelings towards the whole ordeal. She met Clare's husband, who promptly called his wife Nig (because she's getting darker by the second), and finds out that he hates black people based on propaganda he reads. Irene can't grasp why Clare accepts this for herself and even tries to remove her presence from her, but she stays. It's to a point where Irene thinks and talks about Clare all the time, inviting the conversations to her bed (and then later summarizing that her husband and Clare may have a thing for each other). What is it about Clare that makes Irene feel bothered? The topic of passing alone swayed her to stay away, yet she still invites Clare into her life. Why the obsession? Maybe it's an identification problem that hasn't fully been answered.

I'm pretty sure a novel like this debuting in 1929 must have been the talk of the town. It's a bold "secret" that shows two sides of the coin. I rated this book 3-stars. While I understand the importance of this book and its a great conversation starter, I did get bored midway through. I figure the movie would help me stay on the path in the areas I zoned out, but I guess that's how the story is written.

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