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




Letitia VanSant: October Artist of the Month

Letitia VanSant




Letitia VanSant comes at us from Baltimore with her sophomore release Circadian. Though you could mistakenly peg her as just another singer with a pretty voice, stop and listen carefully. First, there’s a bit of upper palate growl, but it’s not half as (if I might) biting as some of her lyrics. But let’s start with something sweet, the title trackCircadian. It opens with some high-range warbling that’s almost Japanese in melody and tone, but its theme is indeed the daily cycles of light fluctuation, though with a twist. She tells us that firefly mating and bird migrations get confused by the “halo” of city lights, and then adds a kicker: And they’re lost and lonely as I am. Without getting preachy, VanSant asks us to notice how our gadgets, machines, and noise make us deaf to the music of the world made before me and how it might be a good idea if lives leaned more toward natural circadian places and paces. Yep. That’s the kind of peace we feel on summer nights by a campfire with fireflies illuminating the woods.


VanSant has created an album that is very personal, but also one that balances light and dark. “You Can’t Put My Fire Out” is about her survival from sexual abuse and her arrangement is one that toggles between rising anger and a defiant determination to move on: I’m taking back my apologies/For every time that you hurt me/Your red hands I can plainly see/You can’t put my fire out. One might think of this song as the companion to “Tin Man,” which is melodically softer but is a takedown of society’s views of manliness. It’s not an original idea that men who buy into stereotypes damage themselves, but VanSant thinks that that deep down they know it: Even the tin man was searching for a heart. “Rising Tide,” another tough song, explores her father’s exposure to Agent Orange and she’s not in a forgiving mood: They pour all this money down the hole in your side/All the money on Wall Street, these tears can’t dry/They’ve got plans for our pockets, cigarettes for our lungs/Poison for our babies and bullets for our guns.


VanSant is often labeled as a folk artist, but she’s also in a honkytonk band. You can hear some of her cowgirl chops on “Spilt Milk,” where she turns her critical eye onto herself for the times in which she should have seen she was letting love spill away but, I was too careless to know. There’s also a bit of country to “Something Real,” a reflection on the death of Jimmy LaFave (1955-2017). She didn’t know LaFave, though his impact resonates in lines such as Someone give me a song to sing that sounds like something real…. Mostly, VanSant recognizes that life offers no magic wand to make things as we want them to be. That’s the theme of a song whose title says it all, “Most of Our Dreams Don’t Come True.”


Circadian features well-written songs. One of VanSant’s smarter moves was to work with Mary Gauthier’s producer Neilson Hubbard (who is also a guest drummer on the album). Hubbard should offer seminars on how to fill spaces without drowning the artist in echoey soup that highlights the session players instead of the headliner. His is a case of less is more. VanSant’s voice may sound a tad too sweet at times, but to come full circle, listen carefully.   


Rob Weir


Dear Edward Affecting though not Deep


Dear Edward (2020)

By Anne Napolitano

Dial Press, 352 pages.





Dear Edward
isn’t the most complex novel on the market, but its story is very affecting. Its namesake hero (of sorts) is Edward Adler, a 12-year-old boy who boards an airplane bound from Newark to Los Angeles with his parents, Bruce and Jane, and his older brother, 15-year-old Jordan, whom Edward admires.


The boys have been homeschooled by their father, who didn’t get tenure at Columbia, which means mom, a writer for the TV show Law and Order is the main breadwinner. They don’t really want to leave New York, but are West Coast bound because Jane has been offered a ridiculous amount of money to write for Hollywood. Alas, their plane crashes in Colorado and 191 people are killed; Edward is the only survivor and no one can quite figure out how that happened. At 12, he is bears two heavy burdens, the loss of his family and the tag “Miracle Boy.”


Napolitano’s organization is one of flip-flopping chapters in which she does in-flight observations through Edward’s eyes, followed by post-crash ones in which Edward tries to adjust to a new life with his aunt Lacey, age 39, and his uncle John Curtis, 42. They tried unsuccessfully to have children and are now raising Edward in a suburban New Jersey town. Needless to say, Edward has plenty of healing to do, both physically and psychologically. Food has lost its allure and he can’t sleep in the Curtis home and begins to do so next door, in a home populated by Besa, a single Latina mom, and her daughter Shay, who is quirky enough to become Edward’s only real friend.


Napolitano via Edward does a nice job of providing backstories of some of those who perished: slightly pudgy Linda, on her way to move in with the Mr. Right she’s finally found; Veronica, a beautiful flight attendant; egotistical bond trader Mark; Florida, a large and flamboyant Filipino woman who believes in past lives; the wealthy but unhealthy Crispin; wounded Army officer Benjamin, who is also gay; and others. They haunt Edward, as do memories of his parents and Jordan. Edward even wears Jordan’s oversized clothes, which doesn’t help him adjust to junior high school, where some of the kids think he’s a curiosity item, others a freak, and still others privileged, as they know the airline has put a million dollars in escrow for him. Shay, Besa, a plant-loving principal, an offbeat therapist, and the Curtises try to help Edward move from grief to healing.


A few years pass before Edward and Shay discover bags in the garage containing letters from friends and relatives of those who perished. As if Eddie needed one more thing to shoulder, these are full of requests to honor the memories of the lost by becoming what they would have had their lives not been cut short. So how does a teenaged boy become a photographer, a philosopher, a poet, a paramedic, a civil rights activist, travel to Alabama to hug a bedridden mother, and walk the Great Wall of China? With Shay’s help, Edward tries to decide which letters to answer and which are best left alone. Harder still, how does Edward decide who he is and what he wants to be? How does one get beyond being the Miracle Boy?


Dear Edward is heartbreaking, mostly in good ways, though Napolitano does sometimes trip over sentimentality. One might also accuse the author of being manipulative by making a 12-year-old the crash survivor. Would our emotions have been aroused the same way if Mark had survived? Likewise, as suggested, the novel’s structure is mechanistic. The airplane chapters are a time signature countdown, but since we know things don’t end well, the drama is removed and only the horror remains. Some readers might also find the book’s big revelation improbable and its resolution forced. Napolitano’s strength lies with character development, though, and it’s hard not to root for Edward. I’d put Dear Edward in the breezy read category. It’s just weighty enough that you need not feel guilty as you zoom through it. I would, however, recommend not reading it the next time you fly.a


Rob Weir