Do You Need a Substitute…?


Cover of "Substitute Me".


Some months ago I was reading an issue of Essence and came across a blurb about Lori Tharps’ novel, Substitute Me. I jotted down the title and the author’s name and figured I’d check it out. But I was a bit skeptical. I’d bought other books recommended in Essence and been disappointed (One Flight Up comes to mind–I had to force myself to finish reading that book, every character was so completely unlikable that they weren’t even fun to read about)–would I be disappointed again?

Well, I bought the book last week and just finished reading it–I can very happily say that I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, I would definitely say that Substitute Me is a book well worth reading and I am glad I had it on my autumn/winter reading list.

Substitute Me tells the story of three people: Zora, a college educated black woman from a well-to-do family who is still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and Kate and Brad, a white married couple with a new baby who are in desperate need of a nanny. Despite feeling ashamed of becoming a nanny, Zora takes the job and sees it as an opportunity to put her culinary degree to work while she tries to decide what she really wants to do. All three characters are hiding something: Zora is hiding her job from her family and also her motivations for staying on the job from herself; Kate is hiding her career ambitions from her husband while she tries to hide her fear that she is not a good mother from her friends; and Brad is hiding his longing to change careers–and his longing for something he knows is missing from his marriage–from his wife.

What starts out as a straightforward family drama quickly becomes something much more interesting. Tharps tackles race relations, sexual tension, having it all and even the plight of modern urban families in such a captivating way that it was difficult to put the book down, even when I knew I had to go to bed or get off the bus. My only complaint about Substitute Me is that there were a few moments when sentences were a bit wonky. Whenever I came across an awkwardly phrased sentence, it knocked me out of the story for a few moments but I came back for more. The voices in Substitute Me rang true and the New York setting really pulled me in. With just a few sentences, Tharps painted a picture of Brooklyn that felt authentic and captivating.

Now that I’ve finished reading Substitute Me, I am anxious for Lori Tharps to write another novel very soon! I hope the wait won’t be too long.

For those of you in the US who are interested in reading Substitute Me, you may have a hard time finding it in your local bookstore. For some reason, many Borders and Barnes & Noble have a “Black Interests” section where they shelve novels by black authors–unless of course it’s a mega-best selling author like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker–instead of listing them with all the other novels. If you find Substitute Me there, I urge you to do what I always do–move a few copies of it to the Best Sellers display. When I was in Philadelphia, I did this with books by Karen Siplin. It was interesting to see how many people [who usually don’t venture into the “Black Interests” or “African-American Interests” section] bought copies of Such a Girl. In the ten minutes I spent browsing after I’d moved the books, all five copies were purchased.

Want to discover more black writers? Check out this great blog.

2 thoughts on “Do You Need a Substitute…?

  1. Hi Kim, that’s a great idea, moving books around in a bookstore. I find it hard to believe they have a special section for “black interests!” I never heard that before. It’s like book segregation! Hey, did you read the help? Would be interesting to get your perspective on it. Thanks for posting your blog on Facebook. I’ll be back (gotta get off line now and run to Trader Joe’s). BTW where are you from in Philly?

    • Hi Susie! Sorry I have taken so long to reply! It’s been a hectic two weeks. Yes, I read The Help and enjoyed it. It reaffirmed some of the things my mom told me about growing up in the South. There were times when I was frustrated with the book but generally I liked it a lot and would definitely recommend it. I’m originally from West Philly but now I live in chilly Stockholm, Sweden. 🙂

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