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Friends and Strangers: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 30, 2020
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A Town and Country "Must-Read Book of the Summer"
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A CNN "Perfect Summer Read'
"J. Courtney Sullivan’s fifth novel, which examines the intricate relationship between a babysitter and her employer, begins in the middle of the night, in the middle of the suburbs — 'Nobody up at this hour besides mothers and insomniacs' — from which promising vantage point we’re given delightful permission to sit back and spy... Drawn by Sullivan’s deft hand, the relationship feels authentic and richly textured... Friends and Strangers is a big novel with big ideas... An honest rendering of what happens behind closed doors."
—Clare Lombardo, New York Times Book Review
"There’s a rare degree of emotional maturity in Friends and Strangers, a willingness to resist demonizing any of the players, a commitment to exploring the demands of family with the deliberate care such complex relations require. Once again, Sullivan has shown herself to be one of the wisest and least pretentious chroniclers of modern life. Every hard-won insight here is offered up with such casual grace."
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"Friends and Strangers is a compellingly readable book that feels a little bit like a beach read, but at the same time tackles themes of acceptance of others and also of yourself... The novel takes on modern issues surrounding adulthood, motherhood and class. It also offers a broader look at issues we are facing as an American society... as hilarious as it is insightful and paints an authentic picture of modern motherhood and the power of female friendship."
“What's crucial about... Friends and Strangers, though, is that they are more than "nanny novels" predicated on a Manichaean dynamic between employer and employee. They expertly lay bare the shortcomings of the employers they represent, but they allow them humanity too: These mothers are lost, isolated and often have no one else to whom they feel they can turn other than their nannies. More importantly, while these books center the young women who have been transported into unfamiliar and luxe surroundings under the auspices of caregiving, they take care to define their protagonists by more than their work.”
"Courtney Sullivan’s new Friends and Strangers... fits neatly into my preferred category of summer reading: literate and smart, but also a heck of a lot of fun and a break for my news-addled brain... a gimlet-eyed examination of classism and privilege in America and a close look at the complicated terrain between parents and hired caregivers, with the ensuing guilt and resentments that so often accompany such relationships."
—New York Post
"One of summer's most delicious reads."
—Town and Country
"A hilarious and insightful novel about a complicated friendship between two very different women... When their differences are revealed, a betrayal takes place with devastating consequences."
"You’ll like this one... a modern look at power dynamics, privilege, and motherhood, and is one you’ll be seeing all over Insta."
"The clash between rich and poor animates Friends and Strangers, J. Courtney Sullivan’s quietly perceptive new novel about two women on different sides of America’s economic divide: a new mother and the college-age nanny she hires for her son... Friends and Strangers is at its best when Sullivan emphasizes the widening class difference in America between people who can afford $46 peony-scented hand soaps and those worried about meeting basic needs. Sullivan dares to further complicate her narrative by showing that financial security doesn’t guarantee happiness. The result is a poignant look at the biases of modern society."
"Sullivan’s writing is captivating and witty as the characters observe the disconnects in their respective lives and those around them."
—New Canaan Advertiser
"Courtney Sullivan's Friends and Strangers exposes fraught truths about power dynamics, class, and privilege."
"This new novel from the author of Saints for All Occasions looks at how our locations, both geographic and where we are in life, can take their toll, and delivers what promises to be one of summer's most delicious reads.”
—Town and Country
"Sullivan... once again displays her keen observation skills with this insightful examination of two women at very different places in their lives. With well-developed, very real-feeling characters the story moves seamlessly from one perspective to the other. Friends and Strangers is a deeply personal yet profound exploration of motherhood, friendships, and the role of privilege in determining how we shape our lives."
"Readers should jettison any expectation they have for the book--fish-out-of-water story, manipulative-nanny chiller, send-up of campus culture. J. Courtney Sullivan's fifth novel offers something more interesting... Friends and Strangers is about whether the unfairness of privilege can ever be sufficiently offset by good deeds. And what of bad deeds: Are they forgiven if they result from good intentions?... . Sullivan massages her themes in scenes as barbed as they are funny, by way of characters as infuriating as they are heartbreaking."
"Sullivan... writes with empathy for her characters even as she reveals their flaws and shortcomings. And while the story she tells focuses primarily on two women from different backgrounds and at different stages of life, it also illuminates broader issues about money, privilege, and class; marriage, family, and friendship; and the dueling demands of career and domesticity with which many women struggle. This perceptive novel about a complex friendship between two women resonates as broadly as it does deeply."
"Sullivan’s intimate, incisive latest explores the evolving friendship between a new mother and her babysitter... Readers will be captivated by Sullivan’s authentic portrait of modern motherhood."
“Friends and Strangers is a smart and deeply compelling exploration of female friendship and the complicated politics of motherhood and childcare. J. Courtney Sullivan is a shrewd and sympathetic observer of our current cultural moment, with an unerring eye for the way that the unspoken realities of money and class can affect even our most intimate relationships.”
—Tom Perrotta, best-selling author of The Leftovers
“J. Courtney Sullivan is one of our great literary treasures, and Friends and Strangers is permeated with her brilliance and heart. The novel is a captivating, wise, laugh-out-loud-funny story about the life-changing friendship between Elisabeth, a new mom, and Sam, her college-age babysitter. I loved this novel from the first word to the last."
—Ann Napolitano, best-selling author of Dear Edward
“I have long been a fan of J. Courtney Sullivan's insightful and rich novels—Friends and Strangers is her best yet! Sullivan has a stunning ability to capture the tenderness and frailty of human relationships. Her newest is a poignant, wise, big-hearted novel full of complicated women doing their best and striving to do better. I loved it.”
—Taylor Jenkins Reid, best-selling author of Daisy Jones & The Six
“J. Courtney Sullivan is a writer of extraordinary gifts, and this is her most affecting book yet, which I just wanted to keep reading and reading straight through to its climactic and emotional last pages, because its world felt completely realized, and completely real. Sullivan is a writer who offers up small human moments and large social ones, all within the frame of a truly good story. I loved it.”
—Meg Wolitzer, best-selling author of The Female Persuasion
- Publisher : Knopf; First Edition (June 30, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0525520597
- ISBN-13 : 978-0525520597
- Item Weight : 1.6 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.53 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #41,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Sam is a senior at a women’s college in the town Elisabeth moved to, and is trying to focus on both her studies and her boyfriend in London. She is from the middle-class, while most of the young women in her dorm are from upper-class homes. This helps Sam to notice the imbalances between the classes, and makes her more keenly aware of the struggles of the immigrant women who work in the food service department at her college. She works along with them at times, as a campus job, and considers them her friends, as she does many of the upper-class girls in her dorm. Her British boyfriend is a self-employed tour guide in his 30s, who is pushing her to get married when she finishes school.
After seeing a job notice on a school bulletin board posted by Elisabeth, Sam goes to interview at Elisabeth's house. She gets the job and not only becomes Elisabeth’s babysitter, but also Elisabeth’s friend and confident. This friendship ends up both helping and hindering the two women in various ways, but there are no “devastating consequences” due to a betrayal, as the book’s description states. Thus, do not expect some tragic incident in this story. Simply expect lots of talk about friendship, college roommates, money issues, employment, pregnancies, IVF procedures, mommy depression, class differences, family problems with parents and a sister, both unhappy and happy childhood memories, happiness and unhappiness with men, kids and babies, etc.
I really want to call this novel ”chick lit", but sometimes fear that’s a reductionist type of label. Yet I fear this book is nowhere near as important, in regards to friendship and social issues, as it appears to want to be. In fact, at times it seems like the type of story that is trying to “educate” the reader on topics, as opposed to the topics coming up in conversations and thoughts in a more natural way. There are lots of conversations about trivial matters that easily could have been cut from the novel, too, with no loss whatsoever to the reader. In addition, the epilogue raises more questions than provides answers and insight. All in all, a somewhat insightful story about modern young women, but not really anything to write home about. A review is all I could write about this book.
Friends and Strangers is a good book-a really good book. I am in my mid-thirties and this book seemed like it had been written about people that I know. I have a lot in common with the characters in the book. Like Sam, I attended an all-women's college. Like Elisabeth, I found a mom's group online that has been the solid support system since I had my first baby 8 years ago. Sam reminded me of a younger version of me, and Elisabeth is living a life parallel to where I am now. I found much of the book very relatable and that is a testament to the author's skill.
The storyline of the book is not really just one storyline-it's several threads that are all woven together. There's Sam's long-distance relationship with an older man, Elisabeth's estranged relationships with her family, the marital tension over money and the questions of whether to have more children, the prospect of Elisabeth's in-laws losing their house as the job market has made her father-in-law's company obsolete, plus much more. At times I couldn't figure out where the story was going and then I realized it's not that kind of book...everything didn't come all together perfectly by the end. Also, the book packs in a lot of observations about modern-day life. Some of the observations are one-offs (such as the pressure for new moms about breastfeeding at all costs) and others are themes that occur throughout the book (the Hollow Tree stuff, observations about different kinds of privilege, etc.). I do think that these subtle commentaries make the book seem very modern at the moment, but they may not stand the test of time. Post-pandemic, our world is going to look very different.
I did find Elisabeth's character to be a little off-putting. She makes a couple of decisions that are just...bad. Really bad and immature since she didn't think to consult her husband Andrew about these huge, life-altering decisions that she made (either before or immediately after). That left a bad taste in my mouth about her...Elisabeth is definitely not an aspirational character who has her adult life all figured out.
Sam, to me, was the more likable of the two women. For one thing, she is much younger and her naivete is believable. For another, she learns some hard truths about the world over the course of the book and she matures.
My only complaint (and the reason I give the book 4.5 stars and not 5) is that only Sam got a voice in the epilogue. I had some questions about Elisabeth's life 10 years into the future and their run-in at a traffic light didn't give me enough answers.
I definitely recommend this book-it's smart, it's thought-provoking, and it's an enjoyable read!