Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Let me begin by saying that I cannot stand books about people who make poor choices – especially if they then compound those choices by continuing to make poor choices. That’s the main reason that I hated The Goldfinch so much (until the end, when it totally redeemed itself and became one of my all-time favorite books, but that is a different story). I don’t know why – maybe I want my fictional characters to be better than real people? – but it is. And the characters in Friends and Strangers make poor choices by the boatload. 

And yet I couldn’t put it down. 

Mini plot summary: Former journalist and writer Elisabeth is a new mother, living in a new city. She is struggling with resentment and frustration in pretty much all of her relationships – to her husband, her in-laws, her parents, her sister, even her best friend back in New York City. Sam is a senior at an elite all-girls college, working to pay her way through school. She has recently fallen in love with an older man who lives in London. Elisabeth hires Sam to watch her baby, Gil, three days a week, while she writes her next book, and a friendship blooms between the two women. This novel explores the time period during which Sam is Gil’s babysitter.

What I enjoyed about this novel: Wow, there was a lot to enjoy here. The writing is excellent. The character study of each protagonist is wonderful – thoughtful and loving and yet unsparing of the harsh truths the characters would rather not face about themselves. It was just a really well-written, well-crafted book.

The themes woven throughout this book were so well done. Visible threads but so elegantly embroidered into the plot that, in most cases, they didn’t seem particularly preachy or moralistic. The themes that stood out to me the most were:

  • Class differences – Okay, so if any of the themes feel a little heavy-handed, it’s this one. Class – the wealthy vs. the middle class vs. the working class vs. the working poor – and privilege underlie and underscore all the relationships in this novel. The way privilege can be invisible to you, and yet offer you so much opportunity, even if you aren’t aware of it. The way a person’s class can affect the way others see and relate to her. I appreciated how well this theme tied into the story, but there were definitely times when I felt like I was being talked at, rather than being swept along by the narrative.
  • Dishonesty – The lies we tell each other, the lies we tell ourselves. The lies we tell the people close to us, the lies we tell those we don’t know as well. How truth can be painful or unknowable. How honesty and lies can affect the people in our lives, and how they see us. This was my favorite theme, and the way it plays out in and among the various relationships was so enthralling.
  • How well we know one another – This ties right into the dishonesty theme, but this book is a lot about relationships, and how well the parties of a relationship really know each other. 
  • Age/Experience – Although I didn’t feel that the author really explored this theme in as in-depth a way as she did the others, there was certainly a thread throughout the book that teased the paradox of how age and experience can play such an important part in our choices – for better and for worse – and yet, in some ways, make no difference at all.
  • Motherhood – Elisabeth is a new mother; she spends a lot of time on message boards for other mothers; she has relationships with other mothers; she struggles with her own role as a mother; she has complex feelings about her own mother and mother-in-law. Sam is, in some ways, a second mother for Gil; she finds mother figures everywhere (in Elisabeth, in President Washington, in Maria, in her own mother, in George). I like how Sullivan touches on the joy of motherhood; its mundanities; its existential meaning, both to the mother and to the person being mothered. I love how motherhood isn’t a foregone conclusion for Sullivan or her characters – it’s never easy, and yet its joys and wonders are no less awe-inducing for the mothers she describes.

There were certainly other themes – marriage, sex, commercialism/consumerism/capitalism, the changing nature of friendships. But the above are the ones that I felt were most developed and resonated most with me.

The plot was… so good. Sam and her story, I think, made up the real emotional heart of this novel… But Elisabeth’s story was… wow. Perhaps because I am closer in age and circumstances (married, one child) to Elisabeth, I felt more invested in her story. But also she just… goes through a lot. Endures a lot. Inflicts a lot. I could not stop reading to find out what would happen next. I would definitely read another novel about what happens to Elisabeth after this story ends. 

Sullivan is also really good at coming up with statements that feel like… ground-breaking truths. I don’t know how else to put it. She’ll just write something that feels so undeniable, but so earth-shattering that I have to take a minute to sit with it. That’s the kind of thing I love about really good books – they feel like they are sharing the secrets of the universe. (I’m putting one here, even though it’s unlikely to strike you the same way… especially without the context of the book to give it weight.)

What I didn’t enjoy about this novel: Some of the choices these women made were abominable. I can’t get into it without major spoilers, but sheesh. I just feel so appalled and disgusted by some of the choices here. Sure, fictional characters should be complex and layered and deeply flawed, just like real people. And none of the actions the characters took seemed out of character or unearned. Plus the fact that the characters did what they did certainly made for absolutely gripping reading. So in that way, the thing I hate the most about this book is one of its biggest strengths. But… yuck. My skin crawls. 

Relatedly, the other thing I disliked is that I feel that maybe there was no redemption for some of the worst behavior. Again, true to life. But I wanted something more, something that indicated remorse or acknowledgment of the betrayals that went on here. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that we get a glimpse of Sam’s future – and through her eyes, an even slimmer glimpse at Elisabeth’s – but I wanted MORE. I wanted to know how the truth came out… or how it chiseled a hole in the character’s psyche… or forced her to become a better person because of it. 

Should you read this book? Oh yes. It is absorbing prose with complicated characters who do some truly wild things to one another and the people they love. I bet you won’t be able to put it down. 

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