Friends and Strangers a Lackluster Effort

Friends and Strangers: A Novel (2020)

By J. Courtney Sullivan

Knopf, 416 pages.

★★ ½


Authors often begin their careers with what they know and have experienced. This is forgivable in early books, but after a while the same ground is trodden bare. For example, do any of us need another John Irving novel into which there’s a bear, wrestling, and Vienna? Enough already!


I did not know J. Courtney Sullivan when she was a Smith student, but there is validity to some of the complaints she puts into the mouths of characters in Friends and Strangers. But, she’s 38 now and it’s time to put her undergraduate years behind her. The book has been tagged as “women’s fiction,” a term I intensely dislike and suspect Sullivan did not choose. I would say, though, that it’s not an inviting novel for men despite the fact that one of the major characters is a standup guy–when he’s paying attention.


The book centers on Andrew and Elisabeth, a couple that lived in Brooklyn until Elisabeth got pregnant via IVF. She didn’t particularly want children, but Andrew wants several. Much to her surprise, she instantly bonded with her son, Gil. She has not bonded with the idea of leaving Brooklyn and moving to the town where Andrew’s parents, George and Faye, reside. She likes her in-laws and is estranged from her own parents, but she is having adjustment problems to life in a small town. To put it bluntly, she’s a Metro-snob who thinks there is no life outside of Greater New York City. Elisabeth spends her days not writing, moaning there is no coffee shop at her doorstep, worrying about her sister, emailing her best friend Nomi who’s still in Brooklyn, and logging onto BK Mamas, a Facebook group for–you guessed it–new mothers in Brooklyn. Her breasts hurt, she prejudges the people in her neighborhood, and she needs a nanny.


About the town. It’s said there are three colleges within a few miles radius and is home to a women’s college that is Smith-not Smith. In other words, she subtracted two schools for her Northampton-not-Northampton “fictional” setting. Andrew gets to work with student interns on an idiotic-not-idiotic project at an offbeat school that is Hampshire-not-Hampshire. She can’t find good coffee in a town renowned for its coffee. And if there is a genre that is as tired as a glue factory horse, it’s one about writers complaining about writing. These opening parts tempted me to toss the book aside with a for-heaven’s sake-get-over-yourself flick of the wrist.


The novel improves when Elisabeth hires Sam, a not-Smith senior, to watch Gil so she can go to a rented office and not write. Sam has her own issues, not the least of which are her student loans and what she’ll do with an English/studio arts degree, but she’s a godsend who is amazing with Gil. Soon Elisabeth considers her to be a member of the family and perhaps her only friend in not-Northampton. At best, that’s creepy. Friends and Strangers takes a qualitative leap when it begins to explore boundaries of all sorts–employer/employee, appropriate/inappropriate boyfriends, youthful exuberance/stupid decisions, help/meddling, non-privilege/delusion….  Sullivan backloads her novel with subplots such as a wayward sister who drains Elisabeth’s bank account in her quest to be a social media influencer, Sam’s attempt to help the Latina college dining hall workers with whom she works, George’s critique of wealth and power, Elisabeth’s contempt for her father, Sam’s romance, and twists on  what constitutes cheating and when helping does more harm than butting out.


The book is set during the years 2014-15, with a coda in 2024-25, when Sam returns to not-Northampton for her not-Smith 10th reunion. The novel's first part will raise eyebrows for those familiar with not-Smith. Sullivan slips in an African American college president, Shirley Washington, who is a fraud on several levels. This is a thinly veiled slam on Ruth Simmons who was president of Smith-actual-Smith from 1995-2001. Although I sometimes taught at Smith during those years, I only knew Simmons through secondhand reports. Apparently, students loved her, faculty was split, much of the support staff disliked her, and she left behind staggering financial challenges. Or so I’m told.


Smithies (of whom I am very fond) will have to make up their own minds about Sullivan’s take on their (and Sullivan’s) alma mater. However these matters are parsed, Friends and Strangers is problematic. Elisabeth is exceedingly difficult to like, Sullivan’s tone is frequently whiny, and it takes too long to get to the meat of the narrative, which means it feels overstuffed. Sullivan’s searing Commencement was published in 2010. A decade later, it’s time to move on.


Rob Weir



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