Passing Strange by Ellen Klages starts in the present day. An elderly woman named Helen learns that she doesn’t have long to live. She’s not overly troubled by this, but she does have a few things she wants to do before she dies, including selling a piece of artwork to a rare book dealer.
We then get an extended flashback of San Francisco during the 1939 World’s Fair. We meet a younger version of Helen who is discriminated against both for being a woman, and for being Asian. Even though she’s a lawyer, no one wants to hire her, so she has to dance to make ends meet.
We also meet her circle of friends. Franny has the magical ability to teleport by folding maps. Franny’s lover, Babs, has a PhD in math, but can’t figure out how Franny’s ability works. Haskel is an artist who illustrates covers for pulp magazines. Emily, the newest addition to their group, is a singer who performs in drag at a local club. They all face discrimination for being women who are attracted to other women.
The author did a fantastic job of researching the time period from what people ate and wore, to how much everything cost and the laws of the time, such as the law that women were required to wear at least three pieces of female clothing. There’s a guest appearance from the artist Diego Rivera, and his wife Frida Kahlo is also mentioned.
The story ends up mainly being about the romance that develops between Haskel and Emily with magic not playing much of a role until the end. It’s a bit of a misdirect, since the reader is led to believe the story will focus more on Helen or Franny, but Haskel and Emily are interesting as well.
My only complaint is that the book follows the trope of skeptics being made to look foolish for not believing in magic. In a world in which magic actually did exist, no one would be skeptical of it because there would be proof that it’s real and it would be impossible to keep it secret.
That minor complaint aside, I loved the descriptions of San Francisco and the World’s Fair and getting to know all of the characters. The attention to detail was amazing. The opening scene that takes place in the present day is also well done. Well worth a read.