The time is 1974. Sarah Phillips, like many another young American over the years, has graduated from college with vague literary aspirations and fled to Europe, where she is living an aimless and fairly meager existence in a Paris apartment shared with several Frenchmen. “The dollar was down that year,” she reports, “and it was harder than ever to live on nothing in Europe, but scores of Americans were still gamely struggling to cast off kin and convention in a foreign tongue.” As so often happens when Americans go abroad in order to free themselves from home and family and class and country, to discover their true selves, one of the first things that she learns is that she is an American. In Sarah’s case, there is an added fillip: She is a particular kind of American, a middle-class, Harvard-educated black American, and the stories that illuminate her roots and her sense of self show, with a detached and ironic clarity, the experiences that have formed a new generation of privileged young black people who are heirs of a civil rights movement which they can barely remember.
This is Andrea Lee’s first novel. Her Russian Journal (1981) was nominated for a National Book Award and praised for its vivid description of the incongruities in Soviet life. In Sarah Phillips, sharp observation and emotional distance remain the hallmarks of Lee’s writing. The novel is created from a series of short stories, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker. The first records Sarah’s moment of recognition in Paris; the rest of the stories, without any linking narrative, record rather systematically the incidents and experiences that shape Sarah’s—and the reader’s—knowledge of who she is.
Each story has a narrow focus; most cover a single incident at a specific time. Their sequence is thematic as much as chronological: The second story centers on Sarah’s connection to her father; the third is about her mother; the next about the neighborhood in which she grew up; and then so on through Sarah’s school experiences and through a group of incidents that refine and illustrate aspects of race and class and way of life. Though the plot reaches no real conclusion—one closes the book with little sense of what Sarah might do next in leading her life as an adult black American—it resolves thematically in the story entitled “A Funeral at New African,” which supplies a reprise of earlier material. Despite the ironies and contradictions that grow from their curious intersections, family, civil rights, church, the stuffy gentility of the old black bourgeoisie, and the freedom of a safe suburb gave Sarah a secure and happy childhood—and provided her with a fine perception of the ironies and contradictions in the world at large. At the novel’s end, Sarah is on a train, in motion. Staring out the window, she places herself among the many people of various colors and conditions who are in transit, moving away from anything they have ever known with only a faint idea of where they are going, but hoping for the moment that motion is enough.
The cool detachment of the first-person narrator lets Andrea Lee give Sarah Phillips a sharply detailed individual background which, at the same time, symbolizes the making of a whole new social group. Even though Sarah is heir to generations of education and relative privilege, the essential nature of upper-middle-class black life is changed for her generation. Sarah’s father is pastor of the New African Baptist Church, a Philadelphia congregation founded in 1813 by free blacks and now filled by prosperous, conservative, light-skinned parishioners who were able to move into the suburbs during the 1950’s; they return on Sundays to a church now surrounded by grimy, litter-filled streets. Sarah, like all suburban children, is uncomfortable and embarrassed by the inner-city neighborhood and distressed by those elements in the ritual of worship that come to seem increasingly primitive. She also has a sharp eye for the gentility and formality that mark the older generation. She recalls that, in 1963, when white students from Philadelphia universities began attending New African to hear the Reverend Phillips preach sermons on civil rights, the women of the congregation were quite distressed by their visitors’ casual clothes and hatlessness.
Even though the civil rights movement took place during Sarah’s grade-school years, it touched her only as a dim background: something adults talked about, “a necessary burden on my conscience, like good grades or hungry people in India.” At ten, she found it quite embarrassing to have a father who openly admitted that he had gone to jail in Alabama. The bitter jokes made by her father and her uncle (an NAACP lawyer) are only...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)