What Passes as Love: A Novel
- By Trisha R. Thomas
- Lake Union Publishing
- 335 pp.
- Reviewed by Gisèle Lewis
- August 31, 2021
An escaped slave navigates the white world in a suspenseful bid for freedom.
Trisha R. Thomas, best known for her successful Nappily Ever After series, offers now an historical novel about a Black woman passing as white in 1850s Virginia. In What Passes as Love, Dahlia is the light-skinned daughter of Lewis Holt, a wealthy white plantation owner. She is also his slave, one of nearly a dozen he has fathered with his Black laborers.
Thanks to her beauty, Dahlia is brought by Holt into the mansion to live and serve as a ladies’ maid for her spoiled white half-sisters. Caught between guilt over the preferential treatment she receives and petty jealousy from her masters, Dahlia yearns for a better existence. Suddenly, the chance for one appears.
During an outing to town on her 16th birthday, she is mistaken for white by a young man. When he abruptly proposes marriage that very afternoon, she embraces the opportunity to escape slavery without questioning his motives. But once installed as lady of the manor — under the name Lily Dove — at her new husband’s plantation, maintaining the lie about her parentage becomes a matter of life and death. Dahlia’s new mother-in-law analyzes her every move, her rogue brother-in-law wants her for himself, and the slaves who suspect her runaway status use her secret as blackmail.
Life becomes more complicated when her husband buys a slave named Bo from the Holt residence. Once childhood friends, Dahlia and Bo have long had an awkward relationship. Holt had forbidden their camaraderie, a rule she frequently ignored, much to Bo’s discomfiture. Now, her tendency to visit him in his quarters could inadvertently reveal her identity. So, too, could a birth register that hides family secrets, a bank robbery, a telltale scar on Dahlia’s back, and a resourceful bounty hunter. Taken together, they make for a story filled with plot twists and spiced with romance.
What Passes as Love is heir to a tradition of American literature about Black women struggling with the psychological torment that accompanies “passing.” Disowned by both races she embodies, Dahlia faces a unique loneliness and fights it by endeavoring to connect with slaves, even at the risk of exposing herself.
The enslaved Bo, a driver and horse breeder, experiences a similar, though lesser, limbo. “The separation of those who worked in the house and those who remained under the hot sun wasn’t anything new. Bo had landed somewhere in the middle, and yet he always ended up as an outsider.” Dahlia and Bo alternate in telling the story in first and third person, respectively. Combined, their fraught but very different lives form a compelling depiction of suffering.
The writing style throughout the novel is straightforward, making this a quick read. Although the historical period is not deeply investigated, it feels authentically rendered, from the clothing descriptions to the broad explanation of the era’s politics.
The narrative also mirrors real-life cases like that of Ellen Craft, a slave who passed as a white man to flee Georgia with her husband in 1848. Likewise pertinent are portions of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a classic autobiography about an enslaved young woman who receives reading lessons early in life before being relentlessly hunted when she goes into hiding.
Thomas’ devotees may enjoy this lively tale of a Black woman challenging 19th-century social norms, but the story lacks a fresh take on the notions of passing or escape. While Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half features a Black town of pale citizens snubbing their darker-skinned neighbors and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad provides the fantasy of a literal railroad, What Passes as Love sticks to established survival tropes. Readers hoping for a serious exploration of racial or class identity won’t find it here.
The story also contains much less angst and violence than found in many other novels about slavery. While this is refreshing in one sense, it causes the narrative tension to flag and deprives readers of the poignancy that should come from characters’ suffering. A sharper focus on what sustains Dahlia and the others through their hardships might have deepened our understanding of their emotional and physical pain. Instead, a flurry of dramatic events removes us from them by several degrees.
Although it’s a light read that delights in the suspense surrounding impersonation, What Passes as Love ultimately lacks the depth of emotion its subject matter deserves. As such, some readers may find its action-adventure approach to recounting our nation’s greatest trauma hard to swallow.
A decade-long resident of Florida, Gisèle Lewis writes about memories, living abroad, and volunteering with the local refugee community. Her work has been published in the Baltimore Review, Saw Palm, Pirene’s Fountain, and other places. Her interviews with women readers appear at GiseleLewis.com.