One day as Irene is visiting Chicago from New York, she meets up with an old friend of hers from childhood, Clare. Both women are African American, but pale-skinned enough that they can “pass” as white. Irene has chosen not to “pass,” but Clare has slipped into white society to the extent of marrying an extremely racist white man. This book deals both with the nature of Irene’s relationship with Clare and that of her relationship with her husband in New York as well.
I really enjoyed the first half of this novella. Before I read Karen’s review of this book, I’d never heard of “passing” at all. I’ve known African Americans who were very pale-skinned, but I never thought about that being an active tool for changing one’s life back in the age that this book takes place. It was interesting, because it showed three different women, all pale enough to “pass,” and the ways that they lived. Clare lived a very dangerous and precarious life with a racist husband. Gertrude, another childhood friend, had married a man she’d grown up with, so he knew about her race even though she “passed” for white in society. Irene never “passed,” though she used her coloring to defy rules of restaurants, hotels, etc who would keep her out because of her race. The juxtaposition of these three different women, especially when they all meet Clare’s husband together, was fascinating.
The second half of the novel dealt more with Irene’s troubled relationship with her husband. I felt like this part of the story detracted from the central narrative set up in the beginning. Actually, I felt like I’d stepped out of one story and was now in a completely different one. The two came back together, in ways that were chilling, but I did feel like much of the second half of the story meandered too far away from the center. If more had been written about Irene’s homelife before meeting Clare, or the two plots had been interwoven more, I think it would have worked better. There was just a certain amount of disjointedness in the flow, and I felt the end message was far different from what the beginning of the book said it would be.
I wanted to read more about “passing” and the consequences of living a life that denies who you really are. It was interesting to hear about Clare’s aching to go back to her home and her roots. It’s the same way I imagine a refugee or someone in exile must feel, unable to safely go home again. That was the part that interested me. I wish that had stayed the central focus of the novella. It didn’t, and what became the center was okay, but not what I was looking for.