The focus of Sarah Phillips is on the title character, a sensitive first-person narrator who reports the events that take place around her and her own reactions to those events. Sarah is a born observer. The chapters about her childhood make it clear that at an early age she was already in the habit of noticing the details of her surroundings: the colors, sounds, and scents in a room, the words of others and the expressions on their faces, and the moment-by-moment progress of her own feelings.
Even though the other characters are seen through Sarah’s eyes, she does not merely describe them; instead, she brings them to life with the skill of a dramatist. She shows her father, the Reverend James Forrest Phillips, at a service, speaking in powerful phrases, varying his vocal patterns like a musician, glowing with the pleasure he feels when he is preaching. Similarly, she shows her mother, Grace Renfrew Phillips, in action, cooking, talking on the telephone, telling dramatic stories of her past adventures, or going for walks in the shadowy summer night. Sarah notices the significance of details, seeing, for example, that Grace’s passionate interests in chicken parts, earthquakes, murders, and suicides are evidence of her delight in the bizarre.
Although far less space is devoted to Sarah’s brother, Matthew Phillips, he is important as a foil to Sarah, who adores him but knows from experience that he generally gets her into trouble. Matthew first appears at the baptismal service, playing the role of the good child in contrast to his recalcitrant sister. As Sarah comments, Matthew delights in setting off explosions and then running away, leaving her behind to cope with the consequences. In the hilarious chapter “Matthew and Martha,” Matthew delights Sarah and shocks his parents by bringing a white Jewish girlfriend home to dinner. After an uncomfortable meal, Matthew escapes as usual, leaving Sarah to bear the brunt of her mother’s fury. In this episode, as throughout the book, an incident is used to support Sarah’s analysis of another character as well as to reveal the importance of that character to her own developing understanding.