Emerging from the black bourgeoisie

Sarah Phillips, by Andrea Lee. New York: Random House. 117 pp. $12.95. Like some other first novels such as Pat Barker's ``Union Street,'' Harriet Doerr's ``Stone for Ibarra,'' and Susan Kenney's ``In Another Country,'' Andrea Lee's ``Sarah Phillips'' can be considered more a collection of short stories than a novel; indeed, much of the book appeared originally in The New Yorker. But as the others do, ``Sarah Phillips'' escapes labels, and this series of vignettes develops into a satisfying narrative.

We meet Sarah in Paris, where she is having a fling after graduation from Harvard, living with her lover and his two friends, and thumbing her nose at her past: ``I had grown up in the hermetic world of the old-fashioned black bourgeoisie -- a group largely unknown to other Americans, which has carried on with cautious pomp for years in eastern cities and suburbs, using its considerable funds to attempt poignant imitations of high society, acting with genuine gallantry in the struggle for civil rights, and finally producing a generation of children educated in newly integrated schools and impatient to escape the outworn rituals of their parents.''

At the close of the Paris chapter, Sarah realizes that it is impossible to cut off ties with her previous life, and the rest of the book describes episodes from her youth.

Sarah grew up in a well-to-do Philadelphia suburb which ``had the constrained, slightly unreal atmosphere of a colony or a foreign enclave; that was because the people who owned the rambling houses behind the shrubbery were black . . . the lawns and tree-lined streets represented the fulfillment of a fantasy long deferred, and acted as a barrier against the predictable cruelty of the world.''

Her father is the beloved minister of the New African Baptist Church. Her mother is a sixth-grade teacher and a formidable cook, who produces ``massive Sunday dinners, which, like acts of God, leave family members stunned and reeling.''

It's a snug and safe life, but, chapter by chapter, it becomes more and more fragile. The outside world invades Sarah's neighborhood in the form of gypsies selling lawn furniture who remark, ``It's a real crime for colored to live like this.'' Sarah accompanies her father to Washington, where he helps plan a civil rights march and she is awakened to the reality of such demonstrations.

Next, she leaves ``the sheltered atmosphere of a tiny Quaker school where race and class were treated with energetic nonchalance'' to attend a swanky girls' school where she, the only black, is treated ``as if I were a very small unexploded bomb.'' In a reversal of guess-who's-coming-to-dinner, her older brother, now a freshman at Swarthmore, brings home a young white woman to his mother's famous Sunday meal. Sarah goes to a summer camp so integrated that it ``looked like illustrations for UNICEF posters'' and encounters raw life when a street gang is invited to spend a week. And eventually she goes off to Harvard, where she starts trying to renounce her past.

This is an exquisite book, beautifully written with grace and wit.

Ruth Doan MacDougall, the author of eight novels, reviews first novels for the Monitor.

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