Kiley Reid explored that knotty relationship at the start of this year in her witty debut novel, “Such a Fun Age.” The story about a white woman determined to prove how much she appreciates her black babysitter cuts into the soft underbelly of liberal vanity.
J. Courtney Sullivan approaches that terrain from a different angle in her new novel, “Friends and Strangers.” Race plays a smaller part in her story, but Sullivan is just as interested in the asymmetrical relationship between parents and caregivers. She focuses particularly on the culture of privilege that works so effectively to maintain class distinctions while erasing any acknowledgment of them.
This is a more constrained story than Sullivan’s 2017 masterpiece, “Saints for All Occasions,” which moved back and forth across one large family’s 50-year history. In “Friends and Strangers,” claustrophobia is the premise as we follow the lives of a pair of new parents in Upstate New York. The mother, Elisabeth, is a former New York Times journalist pining for the sophisticated friends and restaurants she recently left behind in Brooklyn.
The move to a bucolic college town is all part of starting a family — with a yard to play in and grandparents nearby. Now that they’ve arrived, though, it feels like being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Sullivan writes, “Elisabeth reminded herself that she had wanted this — nature, stillness, the sound of birds in trees.” But at night, while feeding her baby in the dark, loneliness washes over Elisabeth, and she scrolls through a Facebook page for Brooklyn moms. Convinced she’s a clueless mother and a washed-up writer, she sinks into anxiety and depression. “Her ambition was something she remembered vaguely,” Sullivan writes, “yet couldn’t seem to conjure.”
“Friends and Strangers” captures the conflicting emotions of parenthood with palpable sympathy. Having struggled successfully through the expensive ordeal of IVF, Elisabeth feels guilty complaining about the tedium of caring for her precious child. Of course she loves him completely, intensely, beyond anything she could have imagined, but the arrival of their son has disrupted the careful egalitarianism of her marriage. Her husband, Andrew, has immediately acquired the universal skill of new fathers to sleep through any disturbance. And why not? “She was technically still on maternity leave,” Sullivan writes, “though that was a murky concept when you worked for yourself. But Elisabeth couldn’t help fearing it was more than that; that parenthood had redefined the terms in a way she hadn’t expected.”
Relief comes in the form of a sweet college senior named Sam. She’s every parent’s dream nanny: a hard-working young woman putting herself through an expensive private college. Sam immediately bonds with Elisabeth’s baby and becomes completely enamored with Elisabeth, too. “She wished she could be this kind of woman for a day, an hour,” Sullivan writes. Before long, Sam and Elisabeth are confiding in each other about their most intimate concerns — both of them convinced that their relationship is based on friendship not employment. “Elisabeth dreaded the days without Sam’s company.”
We’ve seen this scenario played for satire and terror, but Sullivan approaches her story with deep-seated compassion for both sides — reflected in the way the novel’s perspective switches back and forth between them. Sam’s naivete seems entirely appropriate to her youth, and Elisabeth’s inability to see what’s happening may be a symptom of her loneliness. But the story won’t let the older woman off so easily. As the estranged daughter of a manipulative, wealthy man, Elisabeth has spent years denying and ignoring the benefits of her privileged life. Money is irrelevant to her only because she has it and always will. Encouraging her babysitter to imagine that they’re friends is all part of rendering the young woman’s financial dependence invisible. Convinced by her own charade of intimacy, Elisabeth radically overestimates her right to step into the details of Sam’s life.
What’s particularly fascinating is the way Sullivan reenacts that offense with Sam in the role of the presumptuous savior. A side story involving her and the staff of the college cafeteria shows her behaving the same way Elisabeth does: imagining that she knows best how to help these poorly paid women.
With its carefully drawn scenes of home life and its focus on the trials of motherhood and infertility, “Friends and Strangers” will be shelved as domestic fiction. But it’s as much a story about money and politics. Everywhere in the background we can detect the wreckage of an economy no longer capable of sustaining middle-class life. The cute college town is actually just a tiny oasis of trendy shops and vegan grocery stores surrounded by miles of shuttered industries. Elisabeth’s father-in-law has lost his transport business — and his house — under pressure from Uber, the convenient new app that frees drivers from time cards, health insurance and a living wage. All that remains of the American Dream in this novel is the false promise of economic mobility and the mirage of fairness.
But if Sullivan’s vision of this country sounds cynical, her faith in individuals remains profound. 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 writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Friends and Strangers
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf. 395 pp. $27.95