Friday, October 4, 2013

Substitute me by Lori L. Tharps

I finally read a contemporary novel that was satisfying, like a delicious meal made by Zora.

Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps almost did not end up on my bookshelf.  I was traveling back from Alabama, depositing my youngest son back at his university, when we decided to make a rest stop in Paducah, Kentucky.  Of course, the bookstore had lattes, bathrooms, and books - all things required for me to travel comfortably.  While waiting on a latte, I noticed this book on the shelf in the "African American Book Club" section.  Oh, no, I thought, not another one of those "urban fiction" tomes meant to be all things black literary works.

I picked it up, turned it over, noticed the New York skyline, with the Twin Towers still in place, and was intrigued.  I read the back, flipped through a few pages, and was hooked.

Lori Tharps set her novel, an observation of two modern young women finding their way in pre 9/11 New  York.  The writing felt as free and optimistic as the city I visited and where my husband proposed.  I loved the images of the bodegas, coffee shops on the corner, eclectic dress, and the requisite nannys.

Park Slope is as real to me now as when I visited New York last year.  I saw the black nannies pushing the white babies, their mothers off conquering Manhattan or Wall Street.  The city, after all, is where dreams are made in fashion, literature, and finance.  Kate, the white woman in the novel was a PR representative, making her mark, overcoming her challengers, and having the requisite kid as accessory.

Kate reminded me of someone who wanted to have it all at the same time.  She had the adoring husband, the beautiful baby, the  Brooklyn brownstone she owned, and the exotic black nanny who happened to be American. Zora fit what she wanted without her feeling guilty of "owning" one of the latest accessories - a Caribbean older nanny.  Zora was young, hip, from a wealthy black family that would be mortified if they knew she was in domestic service.

The story alternated between glimpses of these two women's lives and how complicated things can become when you enter intimate spaces.  Kate invited Zora more and more to take over, to be the "substitute me" with her son, and often, her husband.  Zora is an exquisite chef who took care of those things that the novelists proposes that all men want - someone to feed them, keep their house clean, take care of their children...and...

Brad wore the trappings of the New York life, but was not what Kate wanted, he was not the yuppie husband.  He could have been a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  I imagine him as conflicted and yearning, loving his wife and son, confused by all his wife's ambition and the events that altered his world to the way it should be.

Set in 1999-2000, this story was during the time I was in graduate school.  Long before it was popular, Zora was wearing long locs and daring to be herself.  She was finding her way and living in the remaining economic boom of the Clinton years, could live in New York on a nanny salary, subletting the way to go.  She was a few years younger than me and had that Gen X angst of finding her way that me, as a just a bit older Boomer II, did not have.  I hadn't thrown caution to the wind and raced off to France to just exist.  I envied Zora and her nanny friend, Angel, for their European freedom and understood their hunger for being more than "just the nanny" or "just the black woman."

This novel satisfied me in ways that just the story of the black nanny and white woman employer in The Help did not.  Perhaps it was because the writer was a black woman or because it was set in modern times, I'm not sure.  It felt familiar, even with the twist and the unexpected expected outcome, it felt right.

We can not have it all, not all at the same time, and not all right.  But we can be fully aware and like Zora Neale Hurston, the namesake of the main character in this book wrote, in the end, To Thine Own Self Be True. That is having it all.

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