Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps — 368 pgs


Book Cover Kate is about to return to her high powered ad-exec job after a six month maternity leave for her newborn son, Oliver. Though she's a very caring and devoted mother, Kate feels a void in her life that can only be filled by resuming her career. When she discovers the perfect nanny named Zora, things seem to be looking up for her. Zora is a godsend to Kate. A thirty year old woman who has had a vast amount of experience with children, Zora is having difficulty deciding what she wants to do with her life. While Kate rushes off to her job, Zora begins to fall in love with little Oliver and starts to do more and more around the house to make up for Kate's absence. But being an African-American nanny working for a white employer seems to make Zora and Kate's husband Brad very uncomfortable. Zora is keeping her position with the Kate and Brad a secret from her family, who would be appalled that she has taken a job as a servant to a white couple, but she can't deny that she finds the job fulfilling. Meanwhile, Zora and Kate form a bond that Kate would like to see stretch further, and Zora begins also to cook and feed the family, becoming, in effect, the perfect nanny and substitute for Kate. When Kate takes on a few extra jobs at the office, Zora is left playing a major role at the house and soon finds that her job is putting her in a very bad position with certain members of the family. This leads to an explosive and shocking series of events that neither the married twosome nor Zora saw coming. Both timely and eye-opening, Substitute Me tells a story of two women who want to have it all and the consequences that having it all can manifest.

I wasn't sure I was going to like this book, and like a lot of the books I have been reading in the past few months, it took me a little time to warm up to both the story and the characters. There are a lot of books now that have sort of burst out of the mold of chick-lit and into more of the area of women's fiction, and I felt this book straddled both of these genres. I guess I consider chick-lit a more fluffy variety of women's fiction that stays away from more serious issues, whereas women's fiction tends to be more relevant and tackles the more serious sides of life. Substitute Me was somewhere in-between, and though it started off with a very chick-lit feel, it ended up morphing into a more serious and thought-provoking piece of fiction.

This book was essentially the story of two very different women and was told in alternating chapters from both viewpoints. Kate, the career woman who wants it all, seems to have only slight difficulty handing the reins of her household to another woman. She deliberates with herself about this for maybe two seconds and decides that she would rather further herself in the business world than stay at home raising her son. It's made clear to the reader very early on that this is not a situation that has to do with money. Kate and Brad could still live extravagantly without Kate's income but Kate feels like there's something tangible she will be sacrificing by not returning to her career. I didn't necessarily feel that Kate was being selfish, but it would be easy to get that impression in light of the fact that she continues to climb the corporate ladder as ferociously as she can and grants Zora more and more power in her household.

Zora, on the other hand, is conflicted about the type of life she wants to lead. Her parents have made it very clear that her options should be limited to prosperous and high profile jobs, which bothers Zora, whose real passion is to become a personal chef. Zora looks at her time with Oliver as a stepping stone and has no plans to remain in the world of nannydom. But she is filled with indecision and vacillates between being satisfied with her current situation and wanting to follow her dreams. The real problem isn't what Zora thinks about her situation, it's what everyone else thinks of her situation. The people she has been open with about her current employment sneer at her for her role as a nanny, pressuring her in subtle ways to leave this glorified serfdom behind and get on to better things. Her parents simply don't know about her job because Zora refuses to tell them.

There is a lot made about the racial divide between whites and blacks and the positions they hold in one another's lives and in society. It seems to be a problem that most of the nannies in New York are black and it causes a lot of tension in the storyline. I honestly never thought about it before because I don't tend to stereotype people by their skin color, but in this book it's exceedingly bad to be a black woman working as a nanny for a white family. I can see that this issue is one that I probably don't understand as well as I think I do and I'm sure that there are a lot of things I haven't considered about these types of arrangements, but I'm not so sure that these issues are all that important. The only thing that should be important is the quality of care that the nanny gives and the respect that is due to her for this care. But generalizations are made and stereotyping and mild prejudice pop their ugly heads up, and the issue of color is one that takes on great importance in the tale.

There are parts of this book I won't discuss because I think it's better to  discover them for yourself. What I will say is at times this book could be a little cliché and preachy. I felt that the same issues were tackled over-abundantly and sometimes to the point of annoyance. I liked the book, I really did, but I felt that some things should have been left on the back burner once being thoroughly discussed. Other than that small niggle, the book was solidly written and I liked that there was gravity to what I initially thought was a light story. I found the characters to be three dimensional and lifelike, and the dialogue was also rather believable.

I think this would be a great book for book clubs because there's a lot here to discuss, and I think it would be interesting to get other people's opinions on the idea of working mothers. I also think the book has a lot to say about racial stereotyping and the perceived inequalities that exist between whites and blacks, and though it does push it's messages rather hard, I do have to admit they are interesting and affecting messages. I ended up being very pleased with this book, and despite some minor problems I had with the way the story was told, I did really enjoy it overall. I would be interested in seeing what others think of it as well, so if you have read this book or are planning on it, drop me a line!


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

12 comments:

Amy said...

This sounds like an interesting story. I'm not sure I would like it, but I am really intrigued by Kate's story especially. Women are expected to give up their careers to have children, or at least their ambitions to move up the corporate ladder, and I definitely don't agree with that. Why should she have to? Why didn't her husband stay home with the kids? Definitely sounds interesting.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This definitely sounds interesting and attacks a lot of social issues, much more than just the primary one. A lot to work out in this book, but it sounds like it's a good read. Sometimes I've wondered about that stereotype and dilemma before. Like Amy, I'm also interested in Kate's story, particularly the business angle to it -- it's refreshing to hear that she feels a void in her life, and it's not necessarily a bad thing that work helps to fill that. I travel for business often, and seem to always find myself on a plane, and I worry about when I do have kids one day! Great review and thought-provoking discussion that you generate, as always!

TheBookGirl said...

I read this book a while ago and liked it...Your review was quite thoughtful, and I really like your blog :)

Suko said...

I am most intrigued by Zora's story, because she seems to be the one experiencing the most tension. It is hard to do what we think we should do when the people around us "sneer" or question what we are doing with our lives (for various reasons), instead of being supportive. But of course I also understand that issues of race come into play in this book. Excellent review, Zibilee. You've definitely piqued my interest.

bermudaonion said...

I didn't understand the title of this one at all until I read your review. The book sounds really interesting and very relevant. I'm looking forward to reading it now.

Jenners said...

This does seem like it "goes the extra mile" to be ABOUT something ... a leap that women's fiction doesn't always make.

I just wonder why Kate would want to have a child in the first place. Perhaps I would have to read it to see her level of involvement with her child but it seems like she basically is hands off.

Pam said...

This sounds really neat! I'm at once, really intrigued and also, a little nervous, simply because the subject matter(s) seems like a lot to take on in one story. I guess, though, that that's the way life, if not novels, usually works, right?

I work, in some capacity, with a private preschool, on the curriculum side, and often run into the people (men, women, couples) who face the "Why did this woman/couple choose to have children/a child in the first place?" question (to which, of course, the answer is complicated) and a great many women (on staff), of all ages, races and back grounds, who constantly fight society and their families/communities, to prove just WHY a Career (Yes! With a capital C!) in Early (very EARLY...birth through K) childhood education is fulfilling and worthwhile.

Ok, all of that set out, I guess this DOES seem like an interesting read. Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed review. :O)

Marie said...

Sounds intriguing. I think you're probably right that it would make a good book club book, the way you describe it being topical and message-oriented. interesting!

Nymeth said...

Unfortunately I'm inclined to suspect that the issue of race does matter quite a bit in the life of a nanny looking for work :\ You're right, nothing but the quality of the care *should* matter, but such is our world.

Melissa M said...

I don't usually read much chick lit or women's fiction, but when I need something a little lighter, this might be just the thing.

Mumsy said...

Great review. I recently read a non-fiction book about nannies - the author tracked three types of nannies, one foreign-born, one an older, career nannie, and one a college educated woman who was working to become Nannie of the Year with her professional association. The issues raised were fascinating, though the book was not all I had hoped for. I love reading thoughtful, well-written fiction that considers issues I'm really interested in...

Literary Feline said...

I admit I passed this one up recently because it didn't really interest me from the description, and so I'm glad to come across your review. It sounds like there's more there than meets the eye. I'm still not sure I want to read it, but I am glad to know more about it.

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