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Friends and Strangers


Friends and Strangers

From J. Courtney Sullivan, the bestselling author of MAINE and SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, comes FRIENDS AND STRANGERS, an insightful and unputdownable story about the surprising friendship between two very different women. Full of thought-provoking discussions of privilege, wealth and motherhood, it is an instant book club classic that is sure to inspire many a long, fulfilling conversation.

Elisabeth is an accomplished journalist and author who has just given birth to her first child, Gil, a happy, beautiful baby who has sent her on a crash course into motherhood, a journey that she still isn’t sure she meant to sign up for. Since welcoming her son, she and her husband, Andrew, have relocated to a small town in upstate New York, away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, the glittering but cutthroat world where they fell in love. Although the move has given them the opportunity to buy a gorgeous house and placed them geographically closer to Andrew’s parents (both a plus for the free sitters and a minus for the proximity), it also has given Elisabeth a serious case of “the grass is greener” syndrome. Even worse, she is hiding a sizable (to the tune of $300,000) secret from her husband and struggling to come up with an idea for her next book, let alone sit down and write it.

In alternating chapters, Sullivan introduces readers to Sam, who is much more than a simple collegiate. Sam comes from a modest middle-class home, and though her family is full of love and support, she has had to pay for most of her schooling on her own. That’s all fine with her until she actually arrives at college and meets and befriends girls from a very different economic class. Her roommate, Isabella, is generous, but is also used to charging expensive dinners and trips to her father’s credit card. Although Sam wants to keep up, she knows she cannot. Even with her job in the school’s cafeteria, she is an outsider --- less privileged than her wealthy classmates, but certainly far more well off than her Latina coworkers, all of whom struggle under the college’s treatment of service workers (though they acknowledge that anything is better than what their poorer relatives have to endure). On top of all of this, Sam is dealing with a controversial relationship with Clive, an older man she met while abroad in London.

" insightful and unputdownable story about the surprising friendship between two very different women. Full of thought-provoking discussions of privilege, wealth and motherhood, it is an instant book club classic that is sure to inspire many a long, fulfilling conversation."

For whatever reason --- timing, fate, sheer luck --- Elisabeth and Sam hit it off instantly when Sam becomes Gil’s babysitter. Though the two attempt to err on the side of professionalism, it is not long before Elisabeth is inviting Sam over for dinners and to watch their favorite television show. The two talk over wine and TV drama; before long, they each fill a void within the other, taking on the roles of mother, sister, daughter and best friend all at once. Sullivan is masterful in crafting their unusual bond: their friendship is neither toxic nor unhealthy, yet the reader constantly senses that it cannot last. As they grow closer and their personal lives become more convoluted, the book takes on the pacing of a thriller, with an unfavorable outcome certain, but no menacing villain lurking just out of sight to send them crashing.

The “villain,” so to speak, comes in the form of Elisabeth’s father-in-law, George. George was once a proud small business owner who showed up at the office every morning to polish his Lincoln Town Car, fill it with bottled water, and shuttle people around to airports, appointments and parties. But just when business was booming, he bought three more expensive cars and was immediately shut down by the arrival of Uber. Since then, he has become obsessed with the idea that while America appears outwardly successful and prosperous, there are systemic inequalities and hierarchies at hand that are set on crushing the little man and helping the wealthy prosper. He calls his theory the “hollow tree,” based on the notion that a tree can look healthy on the outside, but will quickly crumble if the inside is rotten.

I should make it clear now that while George is certainly no villain --- he is sweet, charming and dedicated to his cause in the most inspiring ways --- he does become the catalyst for the breakdown of Elisabeth and Sam’s friendship when he begins to highlight his beliefs to Sam and lets it slip that Elisabeth comes from a wealthy background herself. Though Elisabeth and Sam spent many a night discussing Elisabeth’s early years in New York City, living with four roommates and waitressing, and that she somehow managed to live through her student debt, George’s revelation exposes to Sam that even someone as kind and friendly as Elisabeth can have a blind spot when it comes to her own privilege. Sam, too, comes to realize that she has her own blind spots, particularly when she takes on the case of her Latina coworker, Gaby. Gaby must pay for expensive childcare when she reports to the wealthy college’s cafeteria, even though the school provides free childcare for professors.

FRIENDS AND STRANGERS is a masterful exploration of privilege and the ways that each of us benefit from an unequal system, even if we know there is somebody just one rung above us on the ladder to success and happiness. Elisabeth and Sam are from wildly different backgrounds and tax brackets, yet they share an all-consuming sense of loneliness, and a feeling that they finally will be happy if. Their friendship is full of nuance and hidden power structures, yet it is, at its heart, a fulfilling and happy union --- and this is how Sullivan reels you in. She describes so astutely the sense of missing out and the notion that we can each rise up if we just work a little harder, wear the right things, make the right friends and be ready at the right moment. But as George reminds us, there is always a system set in place to keep us down.

I will be the first to say that while I quite literally could not put down FRIENDS AND STRANGERS, it does come at a shocking length for a contemporary work focusing on only two main characters. Sullivan makes up for this by providing a new brilliant observation or kernel of drama on nearly every page, but I can see this being a long haul for those looking for a lighter summer read. That said, it is perfect for book clubs and discussions with friends. Although I did not touch upon it here, Sullivan also includes several worthy plot points about motherhood and feminism that are equally as powerful as the main theme of privilege.

Highly recommended for readers of A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD, WHISPER NETWORK and ASK AGAIN, YES, FRIENDS AND STRANGERS is a stunning book, full of terrific characters who leap off the page, real-world connections and just enough discourse to really make you think. I am quickly adding Sullivan’s backlist to my indie bookstore e-cart as I type.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 10, 2020

Friends and Strangers
by J. Courtney Sullivan

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525436472
  • ISBN-13: 9780525436478