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.
Six months after her baby, Oliver, is born, Kate Carter is ready to return to her high-powered at a public relations agency. She hires Zora, a thirty year old Black woman with au pair experience. Zora is great with kids, but still doesn’t quite know what to do with her life. She accepts the job, thinking it will only be a temporary position to hold her over until she finds a “real job.”
As Kate takes on major new projects at work, she starts to rely more and more on Zora to take care of everything. Kate is thrilled when Zora, who has culinary school experience, begins cooking for the family. Zora is happy to do the cooking; it dawns on her that she’d be a great personal chef, and she uses her added responsibilities as an excuse to perfect her recipes. Soon, however, Zora is doing so much for the Carter family that she does in essence become a “substitute Kate.”
The book is told from Zora’s and Kate’s alternating viewpoints. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the alternating viewpoints at first, especially the racial tension in Kate’s narrative feels a little heavy-handed at times:
“Tell me a little bit about yourself…Where are you from originally? I can’t quite place your accent.”
“Michigan,” Zora answered bluntly.
“Oh,” Kate said, blushing and feeling really White. She’d assumed Zora was from an island somewhere. Since she and Brad had moved to Brooklyn, all she’d seen and heard on the playgrounds and in the mommy groups were Black nannies with their singsongy Caribbean accents…And this Zora did look kind of exotic, with her dark skin and gold bangle bracelet. And that earring in her nose. Not to mention her Bob Marley hairstyle. But Kate couldn’t say those things out loud.
The book quickly finds its groove, though. Zora is conflicted about being a nanny for numerous reasons, and hides her job from her successful family. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the passages where she struggles with the symbolism of being a Black woman doing domestic work for a White family:
Zora stumbled through her memories, trying to recall a time when she’d ever been more hyperaware of being Black in a White world, and nothing came to mind. Growing up in Ann Arbor, she’d always been one of a handful of Black kids in the neighborhood and at school, but it was neer a big deal. Her parents were considered a power couple in the community, and Zora received all the privileges that came with being their daughter…But it wasn’t like she was oblivious to racism. There was no such thing as that much privilege. And now, as a thirty-year-old Black woman about to start working as a domestic for a White family, she found it hard not to think about the history of such a position. A thousand slave women were probably rolling in their graves as they watched her get ready to go back to the big house.
Back when I had just graduated from grad school and was still living in New York, dirt poor and desperate for a job, I remember agonizing back and forth whether I should apply for a nanny position somewhere. I couldn’t bring myself to do it pretty much for all the reasons outlined above (except substitute the history/stereotypes of Mexican women and domestic labor for the history/stereotypes of Black women and domestic labor). My parents would probably have been horrified. My grandmothers would’ve been horrified. I’ve read a couple of reviews of Substitute Me where the writer thinks that too much was made of race in the book, but I assure you it’s an actual issue for some women.
I found this book refreshing because the women are smart, imperfect characters. It would make an excellent choice for a book club; it’s light enough to keep the reader engaged, but complex enough to keep a conversation going.
Substitute Me was released on August 24, 2010 by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.