Narrative Medicine Book Club: Passing, Week 1

Derek: Irene seems sure of herself, but what does “through with” mean, really? So many chapters to go, and already we feel a burden of knowledge and experience that Irene carries, one that she seems unwilling to share with her father. 


Carmen: So far the vacillating curiosity and disdain that Irene has for Clare doesn’t have me convinced that she’s “through with” Clare Kendry, so I do too wonder what she means. I’m anxious to understand the curiosity that Irene has about Clare. Through Larson we learn Irene’s inner thoughts “It was as if the woman sitting on the other side of the table, a girl that she had known, who had done this rather dangerous and, to Irene Redfield, abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself as well satisfied, had for her a fascination, strange and compelling.” I’m not sure Irene is ready to let go. For me, more breathless tension.


We look forward to seeing you all on Zoom this Saturday at 11:00 a.m. EDT. We will be discussing a close reading of Part 1, Chapters 1 and 2. 

For Week 2, April 18-24th, we’ll be reading Part 1 Chapters 3 and 4!

If you don’t already have your copy, books can be purchased from the publisher, direct from your local indie bookstore, or through indiebound.org or bookshop.org. If you want to join in the book club discussion, you can respond here or on social media using #NMBookClub.

5 thoughts on “Narrative Medicine Book Club: Passing, Week 1

  1. Patricia D.

    I notice how the timeline moves back and forth, using memory to set the stage for what is to come.
    I sense Irene’s inner conflict – envy and distain for this pale, lovely woman who flirts openly with danger. In contrast, Irene has sought security.
    The image of the letter with its purple ink is a preview of the daring Clare who uses her beauty to satisfy her immediate desires.
    A touch of foreshadowing is seen when Ted is described, “Like his father. For ever wanting something that he couldn’t have.”
    Irene’s “inner disturbance, odious and hatefully familiar” about being “outed” as a Negro reminds me of the book, The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. The price of “passing” can be higher than the gains; pretense is hard to maintain day in and day out.
    Clair’s hunger for approval and belonging dominate her existence; this evokes more sadness than disapproval in me.
    Irene’s tight grip on conventions suggest to me that she is not feeling secure in spite of arranging her life with utmost care. Perhaps this reflects the period that this book was written in.

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  2. Derek E.

    I did some research on segregation laws in Chicago;

    “In 1874, state laws forbidding segregation were passed. The Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885 was passed forbidding discrimination in public facilities and places such as hotels, railroads, theatres, and restaurants.”
    https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/Research/pages/afamhist.aspx

    The Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885 gives us context about segregation of the 1920s in Chicago, but no context about microaggressions towards African Americans.

    A passage from the rooftop scene where Irene questions if Clare knows she is a negro, highlights the tension and threat perceived by Irene as she passes at the Drayton. This illustrates there was an unspoken segregation in Chicago even after the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885.

    I enjoyed this discussion. It brought up many questions about the intention of passing, conscious choice, invented self, and privilege. I look forward to seeing what other people write.

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  3. Ellen Goldklang

    Not to date myself, but our discussion today brought back memories of going to the movies with my mom to see the 1959 movie “Imitation of Life” (based on the novel by Fannie Hurst). It is a powerful movie about passing.

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  4. Ruby Senie

    The discussion online and the comments above led me to reread the opening of the book to appreciate Larsen’s skill in providing hints of Clare’s current affluence presented in the book’s first paragraph with the letter written on ‘foreign paper of extraordinary size’ and then very quickly noting the contrast with her family’s financial status when she was young. Her father was their building’s janitor who was brought home dead after a ‘silly saloon-fight’. Was Irene present when Clare reacted to her father’s death as we are given a vivid picture of her response? If so, did Clare feel closer to Irene than anyone else as someone she could turn to for help? Have these contrasting experiences of Clare left her bewildered about her life and encouraged her to write to Irene pleading for help with her ‘pale life’ that causes her constant pain?

    Before the recognition of these women as prior teenage friends, we learn that Irene feared being recognized or possibly rejected from the cafe. However, she thought Clare a ‘lovely creature’ and frequently referred to her skin as ‘ivory’ with magnificent eyes, ‘Negro eyes’. To Irene, Clare was exotic, ‘almost too good-looking’. As the sense of intimacy returned, Clare stated that her aunts never acknowledged their darling brother ‘had seduced-ruined …a Negro girl’. Clare was forbidden from her visiting her prior neighborhood. Irene admitted to being curious about the ‘hazardous business’ that Clare had followed especially as Clare claimed ‘passing’ was so easy to do accomplish, she wondered why others hadn’t done the same.

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