Substitute Me

About The Book

Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old African American middle class, college educated woman, trained as a chef, looking for a job. As fate would have it, Kate and Craig, a married couple, aspiring professionals with a young child are looking for a nanny.

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.

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.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Lori L. Tharps is the author of Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, named by Salon.com as one of their top ten books for 2008, and the co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, where she makes her home with her husband and family. She doesn’t have a nanny.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 24, 2010)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439171110

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Raves and Reviews

“A great read! I can only imagine the discussions this novel will stimulate in book clubs.” —Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House

“With a perceptive and honest eye, Lori Tharps delivers a compelling story that eases us into the heart of a family. But, just as we settle in, we learn that all is not as it appears. Suspense follows, for we know the solution to the unfolding dilemma cannot come without pain.” —Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House

“Book clubs: Substitute Me will give you so much to talk, laugh and argue about, you might want to schedule two meetings to discuss it. Days after finishing it, I'm still debating who the villain is. Lori Tharps has written a timely, engaging page-turner that every working mom in America should read!” —Carleen Brice, author of Children of the Waters

“Lori Tharps’s warm and engaging novel about the struggles of juggling marriage, motherhood and a meaningful career focuses on a story we’re each living, but also exposes the secrets we won’t tell. An enjoyable read.” —Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

A fresh, fun, view of "the help" from a writer to watch. -- Benilde Little, author of Good Hair

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