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Why is every talented young non-fiction writer pressured, from within or without, to produce a ""first novel"" as quickly as possible? Joyce Maynard's Baby Love was one awkward instance. This small collection of sketches by the author of Russian Journal (1981) is another: plainly autobiographical vignettes-perfectly respectable (if a little flat and didactic) as memoir/journalism, entirely unsatisfactory as fiction. In an opening chapter, narrator Sarah Phillips, a young Harvard grad, is living a decadent high life in Europe with a group of young Frenchmen--but she finds that she can't really turn her back on her Afro-American background. (A racist joke ""illuminated for me with blinding clarity the hopeless presumption of trying to discard my portion of America."") In the ten brief pieces that follow, then, Sarah recalls her Philadelphia childhood, with each episode highlighting some aspect of Sarah's ambivalence about being black. Though the daughter of a Baptist preacher, the pre-teen Sarah rejects baptism--with the tacit approval of her wise father. Growing up among solid, even stately, middle-class blacks, Sarah gets a shock when an envious Gypsy woman says of the fine neighborhood: ""It's a real crime for colored to live like this."" Despite her father's intense involvement in civil rights, the marches remain a remote phenomenon, seen on TV, scorned by older brother Matthew. (""I wasn't sure what I really thought."") Soon, however, Sarah gets intimations of prejudice and other kinds of black lives: the living conditions of black servants at prep school; the unspoken yet unsubtle racism of classmates; her summer-camp's disastrous attempt to play host to ghetto-gang kids; predictable reactions to Matthew's interracial romance; a visit to an ancient, earthy black woman. (""Seeing her was shocking in a curiously intimate way, like learning a terrifying secret about myself."") And the final chapter, after a tiny glance at Sarah at college, is her father's funeral--with relatives, dignitaries, numbed emotions, and a thrilling feeling afterwards of moving on, ""although I didn't know what direction I was heading in, and had only a faint idea of what I was leaving behind. . . . ""When writing about Sarah's parents and the church parishioners, Lee is a solid, evocative reporter. The alter-ego portrait of Sarah herself, however, is thin, devoid of emotional immediacy, a series of prosy ""illuminations"" without a speck of fictional spring or texture. And, while the glimpses of Sarah's background are often engaging and informative, this slight grab-bag of reminiscences is very ill-served by its pretentious ""first novel"" label.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 155553158X
Publisher: Random House