Same warning as the first Book Review post, this bad boy is full of spoilers. This book was written in the 20’s and therefore contains all the N words one would expect from a book of this time period with this theme.
If you take a look at this book on Goodreads and click the 1 star reviews you will notice a massive list of people complaining that the “characters are not relatable”, that “there is no plot”, and “nothing happens”. Anytime I see those words written about a book I know that the characters will be the most realistically flawed humans dealing with deep emotional and social conflict. The plot isn’t some trope-stuffed love triangle with an ending wrapped up and packaged like a brand new Apple device.
Yes, the ending is left hanging open as to whether Clare jumped out the window herself or Irene pushed her. Yes, Irene is a wildly unreliable narrator. Clare is painted as being selfish with no regard to others feelings, but Irene pulls the same shit in the name of protecting her kids and family.
We’re seeing Clare as presented by Irene. Clare makes passing part of her daily life with the type of husband she married and fact she won’t risk more kids. In contrast Irene claims only to pass in order to go into certain shops or for other conveniences. Her husband and one of her boys can’t pass and it’s in Harlem that she tries to keep them where they can be safe. This is where (I think) Clare poses the first threat to Irene’s bubble of safety.
The first threat being Irene’s meeting with Clare’s husband. She questions why Clare would put Irene and Gertrude in that type of situation, then respond with a dry letter in the mail only to show up at the house when Irene ignores it. Clare might as well have brought a live tiger into the living room for tea. It feels like she was doing it to show off her ability to pass but comes across as unhinged and puts both Gertrude and Irene in a potentially dangerous situation.
The other is the threat Irene feels when she becomes suspicious of her husband Brian falling for Clare due to constant visiting and being a bit of a permanent flirt. Irene flat out tells us this, and starts a whole internal debate on how to get rid of Clare. But there is a flaw in her worried logic. Clare is leaving anyway in a couple months back to Switzerland. This makes all the constant visiting by Clare make sense, she knows she won’t be coming back for a long time and will miss the fun she is currently having in Harlem. Brian isn’t willing to abandon his wife and kids to live in South America like he wants to, I highly doubt he would do the same over a woman when he himself claimed that sex was a joke.
So this gives focus to the ending where it’s implied that either Irene has pushed Clare out the window in a split second chance to get rid of her or Clare has jumped on her own to escape being killed by her husband. My take from it is that Clare jumped on her own since Irene had her arm on her while she did it and didn’t bother to, you know, grab on. Neither tried to stop it from happening basically.
You see, this is why you leave loose ends - so the readers can speculate based on the information given. We can all debate the reasons why the characters have done these things. The point is to make you think about what these women went through not deliver a neatly wrapped plot or redeeming character arc.
But hey you just watched the Netflix adaptation and noticed all the locked stares between the two, and purposeful casting of Tessa Thompson as Irene. Well, that’s because the book has all kinds of coded language running through it. Larsen uses the word queer 11 times (in a 30k word book) according to the find and replace function in this pdf copy on my iPad. In a book from 1929. A book published one year after Orlando. A few times it’s used in the standard definition but nearly every time its double meaning is implied.
If you didn’t catch on to any of this, go back and read the letter Clare writes to Irene in the first chapter of part 1. Go back and read any of the descriptions Irene uses to describe Clare’s features. There is even a phrase lifted slightly from Lord Alfred Douglas’s The Two Loves: “And something else for which she could find no name”. I only found one reference to “pink women” but Larsen might have just scaled it up to all the red she used instead.
So yeah, Irene isn’t telling us everything she feels. And to be fair, in the context of Larsen’s and the characters races, it would be feeding into several sore stereotypes had she done so. At least that’s what most of the academic reviews tell me, which is a real shame. This also means we’re left to speculate on that angle of the conflict between Irene and Clare as well.
In the end I liked this book a great deal, even better that it was a contemporary story and an easy read. The only criticism I have on the craft of it is that the ending feels rushed. A lot happens in the last section of chapter 4. But I would totally read this again. Great work, an important story told through these characters.