Passing – Nella Larsen

Spoilers ahead!

I picked this book up on a whim because it was half-price at the bookstore. I assumed based on its title and reputation that it would be mainly about race in 1920’s New York. And it is, but it’s also the mother of all the toxic friendship followed by murder and coverup novels, which I think make a distinct subgenre, especially in YA (this book is not YA at all, though).

Irene, our narrator, is a light-skinned African-American, a married mother of two in Harlem. When she reconnects by chance with her childhood friend Clare, she finds out that Clare is passing for white and has married a racist, but longs for the culture of her childhood. Irene is unwilling to put up with what she considers Clare’s selfishness and desire to have it all, and for the first third of the book, my sympathies were with Irene, who’s dragged into an embarrassing situation by Clare’s carelessness.

Then you see Irene’s own marriage, and how she manipulates her husband coldly in order to keep him from fulfilling his dream of moving to Brazil. This is the first clue that something is wrong with Irene. She’s become so obsessed with safety that she’s willing to manipulate and worse to keep her life the way she likes it.

When she starts to suspect, based on no evidence, that her husband is having an affair with Clare, a chain of events is set in motion that ends with Irene murdering Clare in a moment of fear and rage, and making it look like an accident. Whether the affair actually happened is never confirmed or denied.

Irene herself is both repelled and attracted by Clare, and I can see why this makes Clare seem like the charismatic main character. But the book isn’t really about her. It’s about Irene, a picture of a woman who becomes a villain and gets away with it. The book is entirely from her point of view, and she’s fascinating in a trainwreck way–though she seems at first to be and presents herself as the sensible, responsible one.

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