Two different women, both at critical moments in their lives, come together unexpectedly in Friends and Strangers (Knopf), the latest novel from J. Courtney Sullivan, the best-selling author of Maine and Saints for All Occasions.
The book follows the dual perspectives of Elisabeth, an author and first-time mother, and Sam, a college senior on the precipice of an uncertain future. Elisabeth and her husband Andrew have just welcomed their new son Gil and relocated from their beloved Brooklyn to a small college town upstate nearer to Elisabeth’s in-laws. As Elisabeth struggles with the newfound challenges of motherhood and pines for her former life in New York, she hires local student Sam to be Gil’s babysitter. As their two lives intertwine, the story delves into a myriad of complex and engaging subjects, including parenthood, marriage and money.
As characters, both women feel authentic, multidimensional and easily relatable, but one of the most interesting aspects of the novel’s split narration is seeing how the two women view each other — and the ways in which their perceptions diverge from reality. Elisabeth and Sam’s relationship quickly moves beyond boss-and-babysitter; they become close friends. Sam admires and envies the life Elisabeth has built: a successful writing career, a beautiful house, a caring husband, an adorable child. To the young Sam, Elisabeth represents the ultimate dream of finally feeling settled, of having all the pieces of your life seamlessly come together. Sam looks at her own life — juggling multiple jobs to pay for school and caught in the throes of a long-distance relationship with an older man whom her parents disapprove of — and longs for the day when she will be like Elisabeth.
Little does Sam know that Elisabeth’s polished exterior conceals plenty of complications. Elisabeth and Andrew’s move was precipitated by Andrew’s parents’ financial crisis: His father, George, was a professional limo driver who lost his job when Uber came to town and recently spiraled into an obsession with America’s growing socioeconomic divide. Elisabeth’s side of the family is far wealthier than Andrew’s and even more fraught with tension: Her parents’ marriage has always been an unstable affair, her estranged father is a serial philanderer who uses his money to manipulate his daughters, and her sister Charlotte is an irresponsible Instagram influencer with a penchant for over-spending. Plus, Elisabeth has been keeping multiple secrets from her husband Andrew that threaten to destroy their marriage. Elisabeth takes refuge from her own personal chaos by befriending and mothering Sam. Looking for a place to exert the control that she feels is slipping away from her elsewhere, Elisabeth risks getting too involved in Sam’s life and crossing the boundaries of their friendship.
There are many other fascinating threads that compose the tapestry of Friends and Strangers, including Elisabeth’s attempts to assimilate among the moms of her new suburban neighborhood; George’s attempts to spread his message about American greed and poverty; and the complicated relationships between Sam, her fellow students and the underpaid staff members at the women’s college — all of which shed light on the many different faces of privilege. Together, these threads come together to form a novel that is not only the story of the singular year in which these two women’s lives briefly intersected, but also a commentary on the pressures facing many American women and families today.