This is a book about a blonde woman trying to hide the fact that she is Actually Black, while meanwhile trying to connect with her African-American heritage, and everyone around her (black and white) taking this situation completely seriously and trying to help her hide the fact that she is Totally Black from her racist husband, who has no clue (and also is less Aryan-looking than she, but Totally White nonetheless). Thank you, literature, for reminding us that the real world can be as weird as any dystopia.
But in other ways, Passing, though published in 1929, feels modern. It follows the relationship between two women: Irene Redfield lives in Harlem with her husband, a doctor, and two sons; she looks biracial and can “pass,” but generally only does so with strangers, to get into segregated restaurants and the like. Clare Kendry is the aforementioned blonde, a childhood friend of Irene’s who comes across as manipulative and drawn to danger. Though the novella is told in the third person, it feels very much like one of those first-person friendship stories, told through the eyes of the duller friend about the more unconventional and daring one. Irene longs for security, and her marriage is the inverse of Clare’s; while Clare feels stifled by her husband’s expectations, Irene is the one doing the stifling, keeping her husband in his respectable job in New York while he dreams of moving to Brazil.
This is a valuable book historically, as a window into a time when society was obsessed with the idea of pale-skinned people being Actually Secretly Black, by virtue of one great-grandparent or something. At the same time, Irene's experiences of racism seem both modern and quite unlike the way the past is portrayed in modern novels; it troubles her, but neither monopolizes her life nor causes her to fear for her safety. And in the way she tries to keep knowledge of lynchings and the n-word from her children, one can see a modern parent avoiding discussion of the same word and police shootings.
On its literary merits, this is an interesting story, told in a modern, readable style. (The Modern Library edition has long explanatory endnotes that are not strictly necessary, but informative nonetheless.) Irene is a very credible character, with conflicting and sometimes less than admirable motivations, but I had more trouble with Clare; perhaps the author intended to leave us wondering what she really wants. Unfortunately, the end is melodramatic and improbable – before starting the last chapter, think of the most bizarre and sudden cop-out you can imagine. The actual end is worse.(show spoiler)
That said, overall this is a pretty good book, and it’s so short that there’s little reason not to read it. While the specifics of the time period Larsen wrote about have fortunately passed, the concept of denying part of oneself in exchange for social acceptability is still relevant, and likely to remain so.