Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
It is interesting that the novel’s title is the name of an individual person. This was a common practice in the nineteenth century, as evidenced by such books as Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), but it has been far less common in the twentieth century. Lee’s novel, like its nineteenth century counterparts, chronicles the tension between public and private experience. Sarah Phillips has an affirmative faith in the capacity of an individual to prevail against worldly obstacles. One of the novel’s principal accomplishments is its skilled interweaving of personal and social realms. To some extent, Sarah is free to determine her fate, but the pressures of society and race are never minimized.
Andrea Lee first came to prominence with the publication of Russian Journal in 1981. That book, written in lapidary prose, was a candid account of Lee’s personal experiences while visiting the Soviet Union during the “era of stagnation” presided over by Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev. Full of observant and idiosyncratic reportage, Russian Journal garnered praise from across the American critical spectrum. This feat was especially impressive in light of the fact that Lee was only twenty-eight at the time the book was published. After Russian Journal, Lee’s readers eagerly awaited a novel from her. Their expectations were satisfied with the publication of Sarah Phillips in 1984.