It seems impossible to go through life without comparing ourselves to others. The grass always looks greener on the other side – especially when we don't have all the details of that other side. J. Courtney Sullivan does a thorough job of giving readers a glimpse at the consequences that can result from always wishing you were living in another person's shoes.
“Friends and Strangers” tells the story of two women in different stages of life over the course of one year, bouncing back and forth between their points of view. Elisabeth is a new mother recently uprooted from her beloved life in Brooklyn to a house in suburbia where her husband Andrew grew up. She feels lost and struggles to find her place in this new life. The only connections to her old life are a Facebook group for Brooklyn moms and texts from her best friend.
Elisabeth, a writer trying to get her third book off the ground, decides to hire a nanny for her newborn, Gil. Enter Sam, the other leading woman. Sam is navigating through her senior year at the local women's college. Unlike most of the student body, Sam struggles to find her path when she has to decide between her own dreams or pursuing a romantic interest. She worries about the financial turmoil caused by all her student loans. Her friends come from wealth and privilege while she works as Elisabeth's nanny and in the dorm cafeteria to make ends meet.
“Friends and Strangers” is a character-driven read that successfully explores the differences in all walks of life, from race to class to gender. The writing is impactful and insightful, providing internal and external dialogue to answer all the questions that arise in the reader's mind about the thought process and conflict among characters. As the novel progresses, Sullivan introduces new people into both Elisabeth's and Sam's lives, effectively bringing the dynamics of privilege, complicated friendships and different perspectives to light.
Sullivan uses George, Elisabeth's father-in-law, to introduce the idea that not everybody can clearly see their station in life until they take a hard look at those within their circle of friends and strangers. Do we really know the people around us deeply enough to realize our own struggles aren't always what we perceive them to be in comparison to others?
Sam ends up spending time with George while watching Gil. Sam learns about George's theory, The Hollow Tree, which focuses on exposing the injustices and inequalities in the country. This opens her eyes to her position in life and that of those in her circle. She starts questioning how well she really knows the people she considers friends.
Sam is in the unique position of observing her roommate, who has wealth and opportunities galore compared to the cafeteria staff, comprising minorities living paycheck to paycheck. With George's theory fresh in her mind, Sam feels as though her acknowledgment of the inequality of it all isn't enough. She decides to advocate for those less fortunate and ends up realizing she's been blind to her own privilege.
Sullivan successfully creates a complex situation by developing a friendship between Elisabeth and Sam when in reality they are strangers who entered into an employer/employee contract. Elisabeth is jealous of the freedom and youth that Sam possesses and Sam only wishes to skip this college chapter in her life and settle down like her employer. Both women meddle in each other's lives with good intentions, but it results in a falling out. They both realize they didn't know themselves or each other as well as they thought.
At one point, Sam and Elisabeth consider each other best friends. As secrets are revealed and their differences come to light, Sam tells Elisabeth, “You're not one of the people who know me best. You barely know me at all.” Sullivan is making a statement that we choose the friends we want in different chapters of our lives in order to gain what we need in that moment from that person. It's possible to be best friends with someone and then 10 years later feel as though they are strangers because our trajectory in life changes.
“As you made your way through life, there were people who stuck, the ones who stayed around forever and whom you came to need as much as you needed water or air. Others were meant to keep you company for a time. In the moment, you rarely knew which would be which.”
Sullivan provides a thoughtful examination of privilege, various relationships and class roles, showing the consequences that can occur if we choose to live blindly and ignore the wants, needs and struggles of others.
Christy Keller is a designer for The Journal Gazette.