(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.)