I just finished this short, powerful book this morning. I am still formulating all the words, so this may not convey accurately just what a punch it packs.
Irene Redfield is a woman of mixed race–black and white. She encounters former school friend Clare Kendry by chance on a return visit to her family in Chicago. She discovers that Clare, also of mixed race, is “passing” as a white woman in her community and is even married to a racist white man. This is obviously a very dangerous thing to do in the 1920s and Irene is very aware of Clare’s predicament. Clare herself seems to have no concern and casually visits Irene in Harlem when her husband is gone, mingling between the worlds of “black” and “white” without any concern for herself. Embedded within the novel are questions of Irene’s own family life, as we get plenty of hints that not all is well with her marriage. There are even hints of sexual orientation, though I did not see some of them in my reading this time.
Passing is still a compelling book today, because though the US has made peace with some of its racial issues, there are still many others that are being brought to the fore (hello, Cheerio commercial, much?). I think this is an excellent book for undergraduates to read, and I very well may add it to my teaching rotation soon.
You may also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.