J. Courtney Sullivan’s Friends and Strangers follows Elisabeth, a new mom and recent transplant from Brooklyn, NY, to Unspecified College Town, Northeast US, and her nanny Sam, an artist and student at the local women’s college. The novel chronicles a year in the lives of the main characters and a few supporting players as they create drama, cause trauma, and settle into their respective fates.
A preponderance of that settling revolves around romantic relationships. Sam aspires to hurry up and settle down, while Elisabeth is constantly analyzing her own marriage and the romantic relationships around her and occasionally espousing borderline Schlafly-esque life lessons to a rapt Sam:
“Your twenties are about getting the things you want – the career, the man. Your thirties are about figuring out what to do with that stuff once you’ve got it.”
I found this focus on Man Getting quite anachronistic given the setting (2015 Collegetown, NE US) and the characters (a young, talented liberal arts schooled artist and a hip, successful Brooklyn writer). While this rather retro affectation could have been offered as a motivation for Sam and Elisabeth’s bond or as a commentary on gendered discourse, it wasn’t remarked upon much at all, leaving me to wonder if this 1980’s feminist ideology is a peculiarity of the characters or of the writer herself.
The other major miss for me was the epilogue (no spoilers, no worries!). Rather than drawing the characters to a satisfying conclusion, it mostly just underscored the status quo with who seemingly wins, who loses, and who barely warrants a mention. Plus, I thought where Sam and Elisabeth ended up a mere ten years after the last chapter was a bit of a stretch given their previous thoughts and actions, their motives, and the tools at their respective disposals.
On the plus side, the writing is engaging, the main characters are appropriately imperfect, and while the elitism of the setting and the characters may deter some readers, others might enjoy glimpsing such extravagance, and many will see their own privilege reflected in a page or two.
But I had already peeked into that world when I read Commencement, Ms. Sullivan’s first novel, and it was impossible to ignore the parallels. The unnamed women’s college of Friends and Strangers is a virtual facsimile of Commencement’s Smith College (and Sullivan’s IRL alma mater). The young women of Friends and Strangers could be the Commencement crowd’s dormmates, though a few might bristle at their likeness. And while I recall finding Commencement a fine enough book, I wasn’t looking to revisit it, so the surprise seriality didn’t especially endear Friends and Strangers to me.
Ultimately, this book just wasn’t my jam.