Zora seems perfect. She’s an enthusiastic caretaker, a competent house keeper, a great cook. And she wants the job, despite the fact that she won’t let her African American parents and brother know anything about this new career move. They expect much more from her than to use all that good education to do what so many Blacks have dreamed of not doing: working for White folks. Working as an au pair in Paris, France no less, was one thing, they could accept that. Being a servant to a couple not much older nor more educated, is yet another. Every adult character involved in this tangled web is hiding something: the husband is hiding his desire to turn a passion for comic books into a business from his wife, the wife is hiding her professional ambitions from her husband, the nanny is hiding her job from her family and maybe her motivations for staying on her job from herself.
Memorable characters, real-life tensions and concerns and the charming—in a hip kind of way—modern-day Park Slope, Fort Greene, Brooklyn setting make for an un-put-down-able read.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Substitute Me includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lori L. Tharps. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. While waiting for the bus on her first day as a nanny, Zora recalls that both of the families she worked for in Paris were White, so “why was she playing the race card now . . . [she tried] to recall a time when she’d ever been more hyperaware of being Black in a White world” (page 46). Why does Zora feel this way now when she didn’t previously? What circumstances have changed?
2. If Zora is so concerned with what her family and friends think about her becoming a nanny, why does she accept the Carters’ job offer?
3. “As the words tumbled out of her mouth, Kate wasn’t sure where they came from. It was like there was a script in her head and she was just reading the words” (page 57). Besides, when she’s explaining that she’s ready to return to work, are there other examples of Kate saying or doing things she thinks are “right” but are not necessarily how she feels? Can other characters relate?
4. Why does Brad initially maintain a distance from Zora? Why does Zora call Kate by her first name, but Brad “Mr. Carter”?
5. “And that’s what she was there for, to help keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. And he in turn helped Kate let loose every once in a while. They made a good team, Kate thought” (page 111). Do you agree that Brad and Kate balance each other out nicely? Are they a good “team”?
6. Why does Angel dream so much of her return to Italy? What does Europe represent to both Angel and Zora?
7. Why is Zora so reluctant to enter into a relationship with Keith? How have her past romantic relationships affected her?
8. Why does Brad keep his comic book project a secret from his wife?
9. How does Kate feel about Zora’s relationship with Oliver? Is she at all jealous of how close they are, or does she understand?
10. Why does Kate feel like a “mentor” to Zora (page 211)?
11. Does she feel a sense of superiority, is she just being kind, or both?
12. When does Zora’s relationship with Brad begin to change? When she keeps his comic book project a secret? When he starts showing up at the park? When she starts to cook dinner for him?
13. When arguing about the amount of time she was spending at work, “[Kate] swallowed the comment about what Brad could do with Zora if he was so inclined” (page 236). Was this just a
sarcastic thought, or was Kate already aware of a shift in Brad and Zora’s relationship?
14. In what order does Kate prioritize her life? Who comes first— Oliver, Brad, or her job? Is it fair to judge her?
15. “‘No, it’s just her hair and her teeth and . . .’ She shuddered at the thought of Brad with Zora” (page 319). Why does Kate seem particularly disturbed that Brad’s affair might be with Zora? Is race a factor?
16. Why does Brad decide to tell Kate the truth?
17. If they had never invited Zora into their lives, do you think Brad and Kate would have stayed married?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Cooking plays a major role in Substitute Me, so why not turn your book club meeting into a feast? And like Zora, make sure to use the spiciest, most colorful ingredients possible!
2. Since Substitute Me raises significant questions about relationships, if you have a significant other, invite that person to read the book and join this book club discussion.
3. To find out more about Lori Tharps and her work, and to read her blog, visit www.loritharps.com.
A Conversation with Lori L. Tharps
Q. Almost all the chapters alternate between Zora and Kate. Why did you dedicate two to Brad’s perspective, and how did you decide where to place them within the structure of the book?
A. This book is really about two women, Kate and Zora. I wanted to explore that complex relationship between a working woman and the woman she hires to be her replacement at home. Even though the husband, Brad, plays an important role in the story, his part in this domestic drama is secondary until the end of the book. At that point, I felt he deserved to have his point of view shared. I also thought readers would need to know what he was going through so they wouldn’t judge either Kate or Zora too harshly.
Q. Why did you decide to set Substitute Me in the years 1999 and 2000?
A. Basically because New York changed after 9/11, and I wanted to write a story before that change happened. New Yorkers were still living large, and trying to have it all still seemed not only attainable but almost virtuous.
Q. Brooklyn, particularly the Park Slope and Fort Greene sections, is the backdrop for your novel. Have you ever lived there yourself? Why did you choose this neighborhood?
A. I did live in Fort Greene, Park Slope, and Clinton Hill. And it was there, walking around every day observing the nannies and their charges, that the idea for this story was born.
Q. You frequently write about race. As an author, why are you drawn to this topic?
A. As a Black woman married to a Spanish man with two brown boys, my life is a melting pot of colors, cultures, languages, and locations. I don’t only write about my life, I draw inspiration from my life experiences, so I tend overwhelmingly to write about race and identity. I like to eat, too, so I also like to write about food!
Q. Zora is named after author Zora Neale Hurston. Is she a big inspiration to you?
A. Yes. I taught a biography class a few years back and we read Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows, an excellent biography of Hurston. What inspires me the most about Hurston is not so much her literary works but her commitment to write despite the various obstacles—being poor, Black, and female in America—in her way. She didn’t wait for permission or praise to write what she wanted to: she wrote because she had to. She wrote because she loved writing.
Q. Like Kate, you have a background in public relations. Why did you decide to change careers?
A. For me, public relations was that first job out of college. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I needed to pay back my student loans first.
Q. Do you share Zora’s amazing cooking skills?
A. I do not. Not at all. Zora’s cooking skills were totally stolen from a cousin who trained as a chef. I lived vicariously through her experience and always stand by to sample a new recipe.
Q. The romance of Europe is a big draw for both Angel and Zora. You also spent a year studying in Spain and now spend your summers there. What do you love most about Spanish/European living?
A. Siesta time. Seriously. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to eat your big meal of the day at 2:00 p.m. and then be forced to relax because everything is closed for the next two hours. I think we could all benefit from some enforced relaxation time.
Q. Mrs. Rodriguez warns Kate that men “are all faithful to the hand that feeds them” (page 317). Do you agree with her?
A. Ha! In my husband’s case this was true. When we met he lived in a dorm and I lived in an apartment. To convince him to come over, all I had to do was offer to cook for him. But seriously, I do believe there is some truth to the idea that men respond to women who take care of them. Most of them would most likely never admit that because it makes them sound weak somehow, but culturally men are kind of reared to believe that their wives should feed them, wash their clothes, and tickle their paws at night.
Q. Were you at all apprehensive about how readers might react to the affair between Zora and Brad, two very likable characters? Did you ever consider changing the ending?
A. I didn’t write the book for “readers.” I wrote the story of these three characters. As I was writing, I didn’t even know how it was going to end, but the ending that I arrived at felt authentic to me. I actually did consider changing the ending to be a bit more ambiguous, but that felt contrived, so I went back to the original version. Real life is complicated and I tried to tell a story that felt real. I’m not saying it did happen, but it could have. And I’m sure some people won’t like the ending, but that’s okay. I just hope they liked the book.
Q. Kate struggles with the balance of work and family. As a working mother yourself, do you think women can “have it all”?
A. I actually do believe women can have it all, just not all at the same time. I had a career in journalism, then took a break to concentrate on raising my children. Now that my kids are in school, I’ve returned to full-time work. I can look back at my body of work and see a combination of happy kids and a couple of books and be really happy with my accomplishments.