It doesn't read like a novel. It reads more like a series of vignettes, making Andrea Lee's "Sarah Phillips" a book to be read one chapter at a sitting, one before watering the lawn, and another after putting the hose away. The book is written like that, an elusive interchange between the minute details of daily life and the hidden world of mind and heart.
While not the first book written about a black woman's quest for her own history, Lee's protagonist does present a different point of view: that of a daughter born to a Philadelphia Baptist preacher and leader in the civil rights movement, of a female who has been given the same schooling as any upper-middle class white girl, and of a bright, rebellious young woman who wants her parents' absolute disapproval.
At the same time Sarah is magnetized by parents who preach and teach, she and her brother, Matthew, belong to a new generation of blacks, educated for a different kind of leadership. They're expected to succeed in a white middle-class world and yet see life clearly with no romantic illusions. Even their skin is described as the color of cafe au lait. As was said of Adam Clayton Powell, Sarah and Matthew are "light, bright and almost white."
Seventh-graders are sprawled on the grass being philosophical: 'Gretchen says to Sarah, "Don't you think it's rather romantic to be a Negro?" Without waiting for an answer, Gretchen continues, "I do. A few years ago, when Mama and Daddy used to talk to us about the Freedom Riders in the South, my sister Sarabeth and I spent a whole night up crying because we weren't Negroes. If I were a Negro, I'd be like a knight and skewer the Ku Klux Klan. My father says Negroes are the tragic figures of America. Isn't it exciting to be a tragic figure? It's kind of destiny."
Sarah is not consciously clashing with issues of history in these chapters, but author Lee has clearly made her a child of the educated, cheeky, cosmopolitan, critical and bound for achievement.
Lee ties this book together with the pictures in Sarah's mind, inner thoughts and observations translated into print. Sarah gives us a place. She gives us a time. She gives us a cause. But Sarah acts more like the eye of a camera than a human being who loves, hates and dreams. She keeps at such an intellectual distance that we are never able to sneak up on her. We never catch her off guard. We never see her embarrassed, angry, or despondent. For that matter, we never see her gleeful. She sometimes makes us smile, but she never makes us laugh out loud or cry.
"Sarah Phillips" is Andrea Lee's first novel. The book reads like an unromantic autobiography, but it represents much more than a single life because of the changing history of blacks in America.
Lee wrote her first book, "Russian Journal," while in her early 20s; she was praised by the critics as having "encompassed as much of the Russian flesh and spirit as any outsider can ever hope to assimilate."
In "Sarah Phillips," Lee does not encompass as much human flesh and spirit as this reader would wish, but her writing remains a pleasure to read.