Be careful. She’s not your friend, she’s your employee.
The fraught connection between a mother and her child’s babysitter is the focus of “Friends and Strangers,” by J. Courtney Sullivan — the second novel on this topic in the past few months. Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” made a splash with its sassy, provocative approach to the operation of race and class in the relationship between a white writer and her black babysitter in Philadelphia.
“Friends and Strangers” also features a well-to-do writer. Former New York Times journalist and bestselling author Elisabeth was happily settled in Brooklyn just a few months earlier, when she took a buyout from the paper, gave birth and joined the tony BK MAMAS social media group. But since then her husband has left his job to pursue an invention idea and they’ve moved to the college town upstate where his parents live. “But not, like, cool upstate. Take whatever you’re picturing and add two hundred miles,” Elisabeth is quick to explain. She feels completely out of place among her “Real Housewives”-esque neighbors, who wind up their so-called book club by getting wasted at the local bar.
Elisabeth hires Sam, a senior studying Studio Art and English Lit, to take care of baby Gil three days a week so she can get back to work on the proposal for her third book. The first 250 pages of Sullivan’s novel build a warm friendship between Elisabeth and Sam, and put into place the many problems that will come to a boil in the third act. Andrew’s invention idea is ridiculous, and while his parents are struggling financially, Elisabeth has secretly funneled their savings to her airhead sister. Andrew is eager to implant their two remaining embryos, while Elisabeth is ready to get back to writing full time.
Meanwhile, Sam has a skeevy older boyfriend in England who’s pressuring her toward marriage, a party-girl roommate, and delicate friendships with the Latinx women she works with in the college cafeteria. Her nascent political consciousness leads her to connect with Elisabeth’s father-in-law, a taxi driver ruined by the gig economy, now obsessed with an analysis of the American economic mess he calls the Hollow Tree.
In short: It’s a lot, it moves slowly, and Sullivan’s approach to social issues is earnest and predictable. Perhaps this is more obvious in contrast to “Such a Fun Age,” whose sharp edges and biting humor make “Friends and Strangers” seem a bit toothless. But while Kiley Reid threw her rich white lady under the bus, Sullivan is able to keep us connected to Elisabeth even as she makes some huge judgment errors. Richly textured relationships have been Sullivan’s strength since her debut, and even the minor characters in the large cast of “friends and strangers” assembled here show her sure hand.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
Friends and Strangers
By: J. Courtney Sullivan.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pages, $29.95.