It’s been a long time since I’ve dove into a really good book, and Friends and Strangers was that for me. It’s sharp, piercing and, at times, self-deprecating. I tore through the 400-some pages in three days.
Friends and Strangers is the kind of book I wish I could give every young, college-aged grad on the cusp of leaving behind the cocooned ivy walls of university and entering the real world. It’s a compilation—a manual—for how real life in your 20s and 30s often plays out and what becomes truly important as you move through life. It’s the book version of your older sister telling you not to worry about being single and taking a big, impressive job in the city, because in ten years everyone’s going to be pregnant and throwing gender reveal parties and inwardly bewildered on how to navigate the domestic bliss everyone told them they’d love. It’s your older cousin telling you that sometimes friendships in adulthood aren’t always meant to last, and that you’ll lose more friends than you’ll keep as mutual interests wane and life and responsibilities pile on while free time seemingly disappears. Anyway.
Elisabeth, a trust-fund kid eager to never take a dime of her parents’ money, prides herself on having scraped her way to the top of New York’s literary circle after ten years as an acclaimed writer and New York Times journalist. She’s perfect; the picture of elegance, grace and understated humility in the picture-perfect upstate suburbs she struggles to fit into. The perfect balance between her middle-class husband and adorable—though ridiculously privileged—kid. Out of a sheer need to get back her sanity and return to writing, she hires a student at the local women’s college to nanny three times a week. Sam and Elisabeth kick off a warm, almost obsessive friendship, with the older woman clinging onto the younger as a confidante, companion, therapist and, at times, a relationship coach as she doles out life advice in return. As the novel goes on, a sinister feeling of unease enters the relationship as Sam does her best to maintain a distance between her new friend/employer as she realizes Elisabeth is not the person she portrays herself to be—and neither, upon Sam’s horror, is she.
Partly inspired by the author’s own life experience as a college babysitter who became very close to her employer and after a chance encounter ten years later, realized the mother, “didn’t remember their relationship at all “, it tells the story of two adult women, Elisabeth and Sam, from two completely different backgrounds, generations and mindsets and the brief, unlikely friendship that tethers them through a tumultuous year.
The understated, non-preachy societal commentary on the pressure—and the divide—that differing socioeconomic class puts on relationships was a constant theme throughout the book, and kept things interesting. I felt like I was having a constant conversation about the privilege and opportunity that come with wealth, and the characters’ experiences made me reflect often about my own experiences of privilege from an economic, educational and opportunity standpoint. What’s interesting about this story is that if not for mutual necessity—Elisabeth for a sitter and Sam for money to get through her last semester of college—the two wouldn’t be friends at all, and would likely pass through life completely unaware of the other’s existence because of that very divide.
There were especially sharp observations and realizations about differently people with varying degrees of privilege view the world, and their place within it, giving me constant room to think about my own contributions to this kind of system:
“Sam hadn’t made the connection until now that wealth wasn’t only about money, but opportunity…maybe that’s how these things were done and Sam was the only one who didn’t know it.”
Coming in at the latter half of 2020, it feels especially poignant to have Sullivan’s voice adding to the revived, larger conversation about privilege, opportunity and power we’ve been having as a global community. Elisabeth’s gems of wisdom were a pleasure to read, and I found myself thinking about her words long after I’d finished reading them, along with all of the advice I’d gotten from older women in my life who tolerated my naïveté post-grad. Certain quotes, like this one, contrasting seemingly-crucial past desires vs. current ones stuck with me:
“The big secret of adulthood is that you never feel settled,” Elisabeth said, “Just unsettled in new ways. 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.” Ten years ago, all the women she knew dreamed of meeting someone and getting married. Now Elizabeth didn’t have a friend who hadn’t fantasized about divorce.”
All in all, the narrative was told seamlessly. The pace of the novel, the dialogue and inner musings of each character was spot on and continually engaging.
Love it or Leave it?
In essence, the story gave me perspective. Perspective for how to view life past the decade I’m in, and advice for what to look out for—in people, and in myself—once the next comes.
It reminded me a little of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, a story set in decades past that continually reminds us people, especially are our friends, are often not what they portray themselves to be, so we must act accordingly. Friends and Strangers carries the same theme, albeit to a different tune, in the story of female friendship where class differences and life stage bubble below a seemingly tepid relationship.
Friends and Strangers had the narrative, the searing dialogue and searing introspection and incisive observation that I’d been seeking in my next read, but couldn’t quite find. A deliciously satisfying read.