Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: book review
Overview: Elisabeth has been taken from her beloved Brooklyn and plopped down in a nowhere college town in upstate New York. She has no friends, just her husband and infant. Her career has been put on hold with having a child, and she's disconnected from herself. Then, in an open call for babysitters, she meets Sam. Sam is a senior at the college and a natural with the baby, but she has her own challenges as she's pulled between her ambitions and her much older British boyfriend. Sam and Elisabeth quickly pass the employer-babysitter boundaries into a murky friendship full of power imbalances. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 Elisabeth is having a bit of an identity crisis and is more than a little lonely when the book begins. She's stressed about the state of her finances and her family as questions around her husband's job, secrets in their marriage, and whether to expand their family dominate her headspace. She feels like she doesn't fit in with the suburban moms she meets. When Sam offers her adult conversation, she can't help jumping at the chance. Elisabeth is clearly one of those obliviously well meaning people. She's not good at acknowledging her own privilege, only wanting to highlight what she lacks, and she tries to do her best by people in ways that end up twisted or against what those she's trying to help would have wanted. Elisabeth is a generally good person that does bad things, and, for that, she's a lead character you can continue to pull for through her questionable approach. Elisabeth's character offers a solid exploration of some of the darker aspects of motherhood despite loving her child deeply as well.
Sam is the other point of view character. She's more aware of the appropriate boundaries that should exist in this working relationship, but her life is already full of blurred boundaries. Her boyfriend is in his 30s when she's barely entered her 20s, and she fancies herself all grown up, so Elisabeth, in a strange way, becomes fitting company. Sam is stuck between so many worlds, Elisabeth's house offers an escape. She has to fight to form bonds with the staff working in the college kitchen where she does her work study, and she can't comprehend that she'll never fully understand their situation even though she has less privilege than some of her school friends. At the same time, she doesn't fully relate to her wealthy peers with their international vacations and lax approach to money. Much of Sam's college experience is defined by not belonging anywhere obvious in the social stratification and constantly being surprised by the subtle nuances within the simple stories those around her tell.
The rest of the cast – Elisabeth's husband and his family, Sam's friends and her boyfriend Clive – fill out their worlds and add complications to the story. There's clearly a lot of heart poured into Andrew's dad that becomes an adoptive father/grandfather figure to both Elisabeth and Sam.
Plot: 4 Much of the book revolves around the themes of privilege and the nuance that exists within it. This is most obvious in the subplot about Andrew's father's The Hollow Tree theory about the people displaced from their jobs in the town and how corporations are driving them out of business. He is dismissed as crazy through most of the book because what he's saying is inconvenient. Much of Sam's compass for interacting with the world is based on the level of privilege she perceives someone has. She talks down about her rich friend but later regrets saying bad things about her friend because of her wealth. She feels betrayed when she learns that Elisabeth's parents are rich when Elisabeth painted herself as struggling in her early adulthood in New York. Still, when she wants to help her friends who work in the college cafeteria, she takes away their agency in her attempt to help and then struggles to admit that she has more privilege than they do with her being a student at the college. This is all to say that there are constantly stories that seem one way at face value and then are given layers of nuance or caveats that broaden Sam's view of the world. This is also a novel largely about the stories we choose to tell about ourselves and how that guides our interactions with others.
Writing: 4 This was an interesting read. There were a few stretches where I wondered where the story was going and what certain mundane scenes were leading to, but it was largely entertaining throughout. Sullivan has an effortless writing style and did a good job of differentiating Sam and Elisabeth's voices in the various sections. She weaves in a lot of complex ideas and dilemmas without weighing down the story.
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