(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sarah Phillips is a novel about the life of the title character and narrator. Sarah, however, is not the kind of black protagonist typically found in fiction. Born of educated parents, she has grown up in a prosperous Philadelphia suburb, sheltered from violence and racism, but confined by the expectations of her parents and her society. After the death of her father, James Forrest Phillips, a well-known minister, and after the completion of her Harvard University degree, Sarah has gone to Europe, ostensibly to study. In fact, however, she is enjoying herself, as she explores a world much larger than that of her childhood.

Although Andrea Lee has termed Sarah Phillips a novel, it is actually made up of a number of short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. The genesis of the work is evident in the fact that each chapter begins without a reference to the action of the previous one, and each ends with the kind of inconclusive conclusion, often symbolic, which is so familiar to readers of that publication. Lee’s task of turning the stories into a novel was not as difficult as it might seem, however, since Sarah Phillips was the protagonist in all the stories, and since the subject of each was Sarah’s discovery of the world and of her place in it. While in Sarah Phillips there is no single movement toward a critical point, such as would be found in a traditional novel, Lee has provided a degree of suspense by having her protagonist make a sudden decision at the end of the first chapter, a decision that one expects will then be explained in the chapters which follow.

The novel begins in 1974, when Sarah is twenty-one. Shortly after she arrives in Europe with the professed intention of studying literature, Sarah becomes involved with a young Frenchman and leaves her school in Switzerland for Paris, where she, her lover, and two of his male friends have moved into an apartment owned by her lover’s gay uncle. There, the young people live a carefree, communal existence. There are no limitations on their speech or their behavior. Sarah sleeps with her lover or, out of politeness, with his friends. Sometimes she poses nude, while the young men discuss her body. Sometimes they all throw insults at one another. Their actions are governed by their whims.


(The entire section is 954 words.)

Sarah Phillips Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sarah Phillips presents the experiences of an African American woman growing up in a middle-class environment. It covers the period from the early 1960’s until the mid-1970’s. The setting and themes of the book are similar to those of the author’s own life.

Sarah Phillips is divided into twelve episodes. Each of these are a complete story in themselves but also develop the overall narrative. The story is told by a first-person narrator. It is recounted in the form of an autobiographical reminiscence.

The book begins with the narrator and protagonist, Sarah Phillips, living in France during a year abroad as a college student. Sarah is having an enjoyable time, reflecting with amusement on the French myths about America that come to the surface during her conversations with French people. When her French boyfriend, Henri, makes an insensitive racial joke, however, Sarah’s sense of serenity and fun is shattered. She begins to realize that although she had previously thought that Europeans did not possess American racial stereotypes, these stereotypes are difficult for her to escape. Sarah is reminded anew of her racial background and identity. She begins to reflect back on her childhood days.

Sarah had been born the daughter of a prominent African American minister. Sarah is reared in a middle-class residential section of Philadelphia. At the age of ten, she sits on a summer Sunday in a pew of the New African Baptist Church, where her father preaches. The world of the church, where Sarah is surrounded by her extended family, seems all-encompassing to the young girl. The long hours of prayer and singing begin to bore Sarah, however, and she idly fantasizes about playing outdoors in a treehouse. Sarah feels both protected and stifled by the rich atmosphere of the church.

Despite his profession, the Reverend Phillips does not maintain a strict religious grip on the household. Sarah and her older brother Matthew grow up in a loose and relaxed spiritual atmosphere. Even so, Sarah feels that she cannot live up to her father’s expectations of her as a good Christian. She is made particularly nervous by the rite of baptism. When her Aunt Bessie urges her to volunteer to be baptized, Sarah refuses. Sarah expects her parents to be angry, but their reaction is surprisingly mild. Her father’s reluctance to punish Sarah makes an impression on her and becomes a major ingredient of her bond to her father. By not imposing his own expectation on her character, the Reverend Phillips permits Sarah to become her own woman.

On the surface, Sarah’s childhood appears...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)