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Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing (original 1929; edition 2000)

by Nella Larsen

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1,460438,678 (3.76)209
First published in 1929, Passing is a remarkable exploration of the shifting racial and sexual boundaries in America. Larsen, a premier writer of the Harlem Renaissance, captures the rewards and dangers faced by two negro women who pass for white in a deeply segregated world.
Authors:Nella Larsen
Info:New York : Modern Library, c2000.
Collections:Read in 2020

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Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)


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Intriguing Portraits in Passing
Review of the Penguin Vitae hardcover edition (2017) of the 1929 original.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was a Harlem Renaissance author who published only two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) before she completely disassociated from writing and spent the rest of her life working as a nurse. This superb new edition from Penguin Vitae includes a thorough 30 page introduction by Emily Bernard and 8 pages of excellent Explanatory Notes by Thaddeus M. Davis.

Passing is somewhat of a cat and mouse intrigue between two light-skinned African American women. Clare Kendry is passing for white, even though she is married to a virulently racist White American. Irene Redfield, although she could have passed, has stuck by her African American heritage and community. Kendry now regrets what she has left behind and begins to insinuate herself back into Redfield's life after a chance re-meeting (they had known each other as children) with eventual tragic consequences.

I read Passing as part of my subscription to the inaugural 2020 Shakespeare and Company Lost Treasures curated selection. 4 books of the expected 12 have been delivered as of March 2020. ( )
  alanteder | Mar 12, 2020 |
One of the great things about reading from the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die List is that I have been introduced to many writers that I had not experienced before. Such is the case with Passing by Nella Larsen. This is the story of two American women in the 1920s with a similar background who chose very different ways to live.

Both women are very light skinned black women and while Irene is a respected member of the Black community, married to a black doctor and allowing herself to “pass” for white only occasionally, Clare actually lives the life of a white woman, completely denying her black heritage and even hiding her race from her rich, white and bigoted husband. But Clare seemingly desires some contact with the black community and latches onto Irene in order to attend various black social functions. Irene has mixed feelings about Clare, she doesn’t approve of her life choices yet she does her best to protect her secret. Her feelings become even more challenged when she realizes that her husband and Clare are having an affair.

I found Passing to be a very interesting story. Nella Larsen herself was of mixed heritage, her mother was Danish and her father a black American. Racial segregation laws were in force until the 1960s and some light-skinned blacks used “passing” in order to obtain equal opportunities and rights, social standing and acceptance. It is unfortunate that Nella Larsen only wrote one other book, but I will be reading that in the near future. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Jan 9, 2020 |
Irene Redfield is doing some shopping while on a trip to Chicago, when she stops for a brief rest and some tea at an elegant hotel’s restaurant. She notices a woman at a nearby table keeps staring at her and she’s immediately concerned. Could the woman have somehow discerned that Irene is not white, but a Negro?

Larsen was part of the Harlem Renaissance and this book is a marvel of social commentary. In this slim volume Larsen explores issues of black/white identity, of the desire to get ahead and the societal obstacles to that path, of male/female relationships, and female-female rivalries. There is tension, fear, anger, joy, desire and hope. We get a wonderful glimpse of middle-class Black culture in 1920s Harlem. And that ending!

My F2F book club had a stimulating discussion.

A word of caution re the introduction: Definitely read the introduction, which will give you much insight into the book, the author’s background, and the critical thoughts of various experts. BUT … read the book FIRST, as the introduction will contain major spoilers for what happens in the novel. ( )
1 vote BookConcierge | Oct 18, 2019 |
Really good book about a woman living in the Harlem Renaissance whose childhood friend passes for white. Their lives intersect in interesting ways as the " passing white " friend becomes involved with her husband.
  JoshSapan | May 29, 2019 |
I am not sure how I feel. Most of the characters are not likable, it's not necessary but I need to feel some kind of connection to the characters, positive or not to engage the story, the writing. It felt so cold and rigid. These are well to do people, both white and black, in a time, 1928-1929, when misery is just around the corner. It's almost claustrophobic in a way. Irene is little by little, cornered, by Claire who is taking away her security, her husband, her standing. It wasn't an easy listen but in the end I am glad I did ( )
  writerlibrarian | Dec 26, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nella Larsenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bernard, EmilyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henderson, MaeForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shange, NtozakeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
-Countée Cullen
Carl Van Vechten
Fania Marinoff
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It was the last letter in Irene Redfield's little pile of morning mail.
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