Claudia, the narrator of Sally MacLeod's Passing Strange, was born ugly, but her unfortunate face represents the most benign species of ugliness in this tragic, gorgeously written first novel. As a teenager, Claudia's very homeliness makes her promiscuous; if boys can't love her looks, they'll love the favors she provides. To everyone's surprise she marries Dan, one of the boys who callously used her as a teenager and who has grown into a handsome, rich, sarcastic lout. His parents, including a mom deliciously named Ping, are dismayed by Claudia's looks, which prompts her to get plastic surgery.
Claudia's transformation is so complete that she can pass off an old photo of herself as another woman entirely, something that will have disastrous consequences for the future. When Claudia and Dan move to the town of Beasley, North Carolina, things start to crumble in earnest. The South, of course, was long a place where one's looks counted for absolutely everything, and the reader is not surprised by Claudia's quirky fascination with the town's black folk, who still comprise its servant class. Raised in Vermont, Claudia has rarely seen a black person and views them as exotic, friendly animals. When she begins an affair with Calvin, her neighbors' black handyman, you get the feeling she has done so because of, not in spite of, her own racism. At the same time, Claudia and Dan befriend the cream of Beasley society, such as it is, including Debs-Anne, a genteelly racist flibbertigibbet with a mother-in-law named Nan Darlin'. The reader braces early for the book's Gatsby-esque denouement.
MacLeod's way with language is luminous. This reviewer once heard Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, remark that every saying you've heard once is already a cliche, and MacLeod seems incapable of cliche; every description and metaphor is as fresh and startling as those candy crystals that fizz and pop in the mouth. She's superb at describing the emotional, physical and even financial costs of a major facelift: the discomfort, the frozen tea bag therapy, the salt water rinse, the diet of bland food, and then the shock of a new and lovely face and the unwarranted social acceptance it buys.
No one in MacLeod's book is particularly likable, but her talent hooks the reader and keeps you hooked, no matter how distasteful her characters. Passing Strange handles the subjects of looks, and its poisonous subspecies, race, in a new and arresting way.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica Plains, New York.