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ON paper Zora Anderson was a statistic. A clichÉ, really. Single. Age thirty. African-American. College dropout. Failure. But in real life, Zora Anderson had a lot to offer. “I am a good person,” she would often remind herself. It was a mantra she used to lift her spirits when she contemplated all of the things she’d meant to do with her life and thus far hadn’t gotten around to. It was what she remembered as she walked down a quiet tree-lined street on a warm, sunny day in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and tried to prepare herself for what she was about to do. “I am a good person. I am a good person. I am a good person.” The phrase repeated and replayed like a network news ticker across her brain, giving her the courage to go through with her plan. If her parents knew what she was about to do, they would completely disown her, probably change the locks on the doors and spit on all of her photographs. But they wouldn’t know, she reminded herself, because she would never tell them. By the time they stopped being angry, she’d have moved on, and this thing, this job, would be over.
Zora had to believe that.
She knew the only reason she was applying for the position was because of Sondra. She promised Sondra that she’d sublet her apartment for a year while Sondra went off to begin her undergraduate education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Sondra had been dreaming about going to Smith ever since she found out that the prestigious women’s college had a special program for old ladies—basically, anyone over age eighteen. At twenty-eight, Sondra fit the bill and had applied right away. But moving to Massachusetts didn’t mean she was willing to give up her tiny studio apartment in Fort Greene, because it was rent-controlled, and the landlord lived in Florida. In New York, that combination of coincidence was the equivalent of winning the lottery and then finding out you didn’t have to pay taxes on your loot.
Zora had promised Sondra back in the spring, when Sondra had gotten her acceptance letter from Smith, that she’d take the apartment. Back then she’d just been killing time at her parents’ house in Ann Arbor, waiting for something to happen in her life. Sondra’s offer was the perfect something: her own place, a big city, and all of the endless opportunities New York City offered a girl still trying to figure out what to do with her life. Or at the very least find a decent job. Even her parents thought it was a good idea for her to go. The problem was, Zora had been in New York for six weeks now, her cash reserves were disappearing fast, and she still hadn’t found a job. She owed Sondra, though, both money and immeasurable thanks. She’d practically saved Zora’s life back when they’d first met, so Zora wasn’t going to let her down now. She was going to convince Kate Carter to hire her, and then she could hand Sondra her first month’s rent just in time for her to chase her Ivy League dreams at the end of August.
Zora pulled the crumpled newspaper ad out of her skirt pocket and looked at it again.
It read: Substitute Me. Looking for a nanny who will take care of my six-month-old baby as if he were her own. Five full days a week. No cooking or cleaning required. Must love children and be prepared to show it. References required.
In the margins Zora had scribbled the address Kate had given her on the phone. Maybe she should call her Ms. Carter, Zora worried. The woman had seemed so formal, even though she didn’t sound that old. But you never knew. The women here in New York seemed to have children later and later. Sometimes Zora couldn’t tell if it was the mother or the grandmother pushing the stroller down the street. For all she knew, Kate Carter could be well into her forties, Zora thought as she started down Second Street. She was careful not to walk too fast, so she wouldn’t work up a sweat in the sticky summer heat. Even though she didn’t know her way around this area, it was easy enough to navigate. The layout was pretty basic: The streets ran north-south and the avenues east-west. Sondra claimed Park Slope had turned into a storybook neighborhood practically overnight, a place where the yuppies from Manhattan migrated when they were ready to start a family. The Carters’ house was supposed to be on Second Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, so Zora quickly calculated she had three more blocks to walk while simultaneously trying to retard the perspiration process. That meant she had three more blocks to get her head straight for the interview.
Zora barely registered her surroundings—the imposing brownstone town houses with their perfect miniature gardens, cozy stone churches on almost every other corner, and tiny bodegas nestled between some of the houses—as she repeated her mantra, “I am a good person. I am a good person.” She didn’t know why she was so nervous. Probably because this Carter woman had sounded so intimidating. She had already grilled Zora over the phone, shooting off questions so quickly, Zora hardly had time to catch her breath between answers. By the time the interrogation was over, her heart was beating furiously and her hands were cold and clammy. She hadn’t felt that much performance anxiety since final-exam week in college. Thank God for Paris, she thought. When she mentioned to Kate that she’d been an au pair in France, she could hear relief and what sounded like approval in the woman’s voice. Kate had asked for the phone numbers of the families she’d worked for in France, and for a moment Zora had panicked. She couldn’t remember the numbers, and she didn’t want this woman to think she’d been lying about her experience working abroad. Even though Zora had spent four years in Paris, more and more of her memories were disappearing, along with her perfect French accent.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kate Carter had assured her. “You can bring the phone numbers with you to the interview.” So Zora spent ten of her last hundred dollars on a phone card so she could call Valerie in Paris and beg her to track down the phone numbers of the Larouxs and the Bertrands, the two families she’d worked for. Of course Valerie yelled at her for not calling more often, but she promised to help. Luckily, she’d called back the night before with the numbers and updates about the children Zora used to care for. “Hey, Zora,” Valerie had said before hanging up, “if you’re just going to be babysitting again, why don’t you come back to Paris to do it? Remember, everything—” Before she could finish, Zora interrupted. “I know. Everything sounds better in French. But I just needed to come home,” she said. Valerie snorted in response. Valerie had been in France for eight years and refused to come back to the United States until she was finished writing the definitive novel about the Black experience in Paris. She also needed to convince Ahmed, the Moroccan bartender, to fall madly in love with her before her mission would be complete. Zora didn’t think either of those things was going to happen anytime soon, but she wished Valerie good luck all the same before she hung up.
And it was true, Zora thought. Being an au pair in Europe had far more cachet than being a nanny in Brooklyn. Even her parents could get behind the idea of their daughter being an au pair in the cultural capital of the world, but they would both hang their heads in shame if they knew Zora was interviewing for a job that her ancestors had sacrificed their lives not to do. In Paris, it was a different game. She was learning a new language, visiting art museums, and traveling all over Europe. She had responsibilities taking care of two young children, so she’d been forced to learn how to be both efficient and resourceful in all things related to child rearing. She could whip up a dozen crepes in ten minutes flat, and she learned how to drive a stick shift in twenty-four hours so she could take the kids on field trips outside the city. Back then she had still been able to claim the title of “college student” on a journey toward finding herself. Back then she was testing her independence, exploring a new culture, and learning about life. Now, at age thirty, applying for the same job, she was an embarrassment and a disappointment to her family.
The numbers on the left side of the street were odd, so Zora crossed over to the right. She walked slowly down the block, tracking the addresses on the houses. The Carters’ address was 246 Second Street. Kate had said the house was in the middle of the block, but it actually sat two houses from the corner of Fifth Avenue. Sondra had explained that Fifth Avenue technically marked the border between Park Slope and no-man’s-land and that it could get kind of sketchy at night. Maybe Mrs. Carter didn’t want to admit that her house teetered on the edge of respectability, Zora thought. But it didn’t really matter, as far as Zora was concerned. People could invent their lives any way they wanted.
Standing in front of the Carters’ house, Zora tried to discern what type of people lived inside. Like most of the other houses on the block, their brownstone stood four stories high with a shiny black shingled roof. There was a separate entrance for the garden apartment on the lower level, and a tall flight of brown concrete stairs led to the front door, which, to Zora’s delight, was painted red. The front garden was smaller than her parents’ front porch back home in Michigan, but it was ablaze with colorful blossoms in tidy rows, a splendid pink rosebush taking center stage.
As Zora pushed open the iron gate, she noticed someone watching her from the garden apartment. As soon as she raised her hand to wave, the curtains abruptly shut and the face disappeared. Zora glanced down to see if there was something wrong with the way she was dressed for the interview. She had chosen a navy blue denim skirt that was neither long nor short, a kelly green polo shirt, and simple gold post earrings. She had deliberately chosen an outfit that would downplay her tiny waist and curvy lower half because everybody knew nannies should be asexual and nonthreatening. A single gold bangle bracelet graced her left wrist. The look she’d been going for was neutral and stable, qualities she thought a nanny should have. She hadn’t bothered to remove the tiny gold stud in her nose, despite its very nonneutral connotations, because most people didn’t notice it until at least the second or third time they met her. Also because it was such a pain to remove.
Zora climbed the twelve steps to the front door, recited her mantra one more time, and rang the bell. She waited only two seconds before the door sprang open and a tall, attractive White woman in khaki pants and a pale yellow button-down oxford stood before her.
“Hello,” she said. “You must be Zora.”
© 2010 Lori Tharps
Posted January 11, 2011
Kate Carter is ready to go back to work after maternity leave and she would like to hire a nanny. Zora Anderson, a college educated black woman, is in need of a job. Zora was afraid of what her family thought of her chosen profession, but she didn't let their narrow-minded opinions prevent her from doing what she loved to do. "They used to call it being a slave, but today the job is called being a nanny." Those were Zora's words on page 199. Nanny/Slave - I don't see the comparison. Zora wasn't being forced against her will to do the work she did for Kate and Brad. She applied for the job and she was getting paid well. She was very good at what she did. She wasn't just cleaning up after white people and raising their child; she was a professional and she deserved to be respected. Taking care of children takes skill and patience and lots of love for these little ones. Zora had all of that and using her talents to help a couple in need of her services was not beneath her. She had nothing to feel bad about. Now, the choice she made near the end of the story? That was something she shouldn't have felt good about, and she didn't. I liked Angel (Zora's closest friend in New York). She was a good friend to Zora and she was funny. She knew what she wanted out of life and nobody was going to stand in her way. It would have been nice if she didn't use so much profanity, though. Kate loved her job and she worked hard, and I admired that, but she put her work before her husband and her son. If she would have taken care of certain things herself (for instance, she should have been the one who made her husband tasty meals and had meaningful conversations with him at the dinner table), the outcome of this story could have been different. And even though Kate claimed to care about Zora, she seemed to believe a nanny was all this talented black woman could ever be, despite her dreams. I did not like Kate's friend Fiona, who thought she knew black women so well. Favorable reviews helped me decide to buy this book. As I read the story, which is told from Zora and Kate's alternating points of view, I kept thinking it was okay, but it wasn't as entertaining or even as thought-provoking or as deep as I expected it to be. Reading about the everyday lives of the characters - their dreams and goals, their opinions about races other than their own, their professions - was kind of interesting, but there was nothing that made me eager to read on... until chapter twenty-nine (there are forty chapters). I wasn't totally shocked by what happened, because I kind of figured it was coming, but after that I became very interested in how things were going to turn out. What choice was Zora going to make next? The ending was disappointing to me. Every feeling doesn't have to be acted upon, especially when others will be hurt, lives altered and a relationship destroyed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 28, 2010
"From the first page of Lori L. Tharps "Substitue Me" I found myself compelled to keep reading as the author has created two very interesting characters and alternates telling the story from each of their viewpoints. Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old upper middle class black woman who is drifting through life without discovering who she really is or what she really wants to do with her life. She has dropped out of college, been an au pair in Paris, and completed a culinary school course. In desperation, she answers an ad for a "substitue me" and takes a job as a nanny to pay the rent on her sublet New York City apartment; a job she hides from her family because she feels guilty for not doing more with the life of privilege and opportunity that she has been given. Although she feels like her job choice is a backward step for the civil rights movement, she comes to love it. The second character is Kate, a woman returning to her job at a large public relations firm at the end of her maternity leave. At first torn between leaving her son and returning to work, Kate is soon consumed by the desire to prove she is still at the top of her game and save her job from a newly hired worker who makes no secret of her ambitions. This book takes an issue that confronts many women - marriage vs motherhood and how to balance the two and examines it from several sides. The ultimate decisions made will have far-reaching consequences for both women and will provide lively discussion. I enjoyed it very much."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 11, 2010
I was so excited to read this book. I had read the reviews in a urban magazine and couldnt wait to put my hands on it. I was soo impressed with the synopsis that I made this book my book club's Sept selection. However my hopes vanished fast once I began reading. It was an extremely slow start to a very predictable ending.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2010
Ms. Tharps definitely made this an interesting read. Showing the contrast of different positions in life, regardless of age, race or gender. But also showed how people of different races interact and how parents feel about the choices their children make in choosing careers. I didn't like the fact that two of the main characters had an affair but for someone that is placing their career over the family in the number of hours they are spending on each it could be an eye opener. The different generations of Americans see race differently, some of this is because of area in which they are living and growing and some is because of their upbringing and friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 11, 2010
Thirty year old Zora Anderson has floated from place to place and job to job on a whim. Moving on when things become too much to handle, she finds herself in New York with a place to stay, but in desperate need of a job. The college-educated daughter of upwardly mobile parents, Zora realizes that she's not living up to the goal her parents have set for her. Even still, the former au pair in France decides to give being a New York nanny a try.
Kate Carter is headed back to work after an extended maternity leave and the search is on to find the perfect nanny. She has regrets about leaving her infant son home with a stranger, but figures the ad she's placed will guarantee a perfect fit.
Substitute Me: Looking for a nanny who will take care of my six-month-old baby as if he were her own. Five full days a week. No cooking or cleaning required. Must love children and be prepared to show it. References required.
Raised in a working class neighborhood, Brad Carter is hesitant to bring in a nanny to watch his son, Oliver. While his and Kate's jobs afford them certain privileges, he's unsure that this new situation meshes well with the way he was raised. As Kate begins to work longer hours and Brad becomes more accustomed to Zora's presence in the house, it seems that the 'substitute me' is beginning to take on additional duties that have nothing to do with baby Oliver.
It's important to note that while Zora is black and the Carters are white, their races are not necessarily the central issue. It seems to me that the issue is one woman completely giving power over her life to someone else and then questioning it when that person steps in and does a better job at it. Kate and her mother make racially charged comments about Zora, but if they were being honest with themselves, they would realize that her race has nothing to do with the situation Kate finds herself in.
In Jodi Picoult fashion, Lori L. Tharp has crafted a nanny story that gives the reader all sides. Often the story is only told from the point of view of the nanny. In Substitute Me, you really get a chance to learn the characters and understand that perception really is reality.
What did you like about this book?
It really made me think beyond the obvious. As a black woman, I think I see race first sometimes and sex second. This book made me realize that in this case, while race played a small part, overall it was not caused the real conflict.
What didn't you like about this book?
Zora's relationship with Keith isn't as fleshed out as I would have liked to see it.
What could the author do to improve this book?
I don't know that I love the cover of the book. Nothing about it screams nanny lit or anything else that would grab my eye. If I saw it in the bookstore, I would assume it was a thriller/murder mystery just based on its darkness.
Posted April 1, 2011
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Posted July 20, 2011
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Posted August 27, 2010
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