Passing: A Book Review

Nearly a hundred years ago, Nella Larsen published Passing. Today, it is still every bit as nuanced and readable.

Passing by Nella Larsen

In this brief yet loaded novel, two light-skinned women who have made vastly different choices as to their identities happen to encounter one another, forever changing their life paths. It has been over a decade since they last seen or heard from one another, and at first they do not entirely recognize each other. Clare, who had disappeared in their youth, is now married to a wealthy white man and is herself posing as a white woman, unbeknownst to him. On the other hand, Irene has aligned herself more with her heritage, marrying a Black man and remaining connected with family and friends, yet still holding an affluent enough position to have hired help around the house and occupying an upper middle class status.

Though the two share a brief dinner together during their chance encounter, Clare wants to see more of Irene. Their meeting has rekindled a desire in Clare, a longing for a connection with the Black community from which she has been so estranged, as her husband is horribly racist. Thus, Clare begins to discreetly visit Irene, spending increasing amounts of time with her friends, her family, and her husband.

Split into three parts, this novel succinctly illustrates the different ways race may be performed in discrete contexts, as well as how higher class standing enables fluidity of identity. The novel also showcases how colorism is ubiquitous in a white supremacist power system, and how sex and race overlay in American society.

A stunningly poignant story told in exceptional writing! A must-read classic.


For more fiction book reviews from Slanted Spines, browse here.

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