When Your Babysitter Becomes Your Best Friend
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
Friends and Strangers
By: J. Courtney Sullivan
In 2019 the library in my hometown hosted J. Courtney Sullivan for our annual author luncheon. She was finishing out the tour for A Saint for All Occasions and we were thrilled to have her come speak to our 200+ guests. What I can confidently say about J. Courtney is that she would without a doubt become your best friend. She’s the girl next door; a mother, a wife, a friend, and daughter. She spoke lovingly of her children and her family. She is sweet, smart, and articulate, easy to listen to, and easily relatable. Because she is a completely normal person who understands everything I feel in my own life, I just want to keep reading all of her books. In preparation for her visit, I made sure I did. You have all heard of Maine and probably The Engagements, but did you know that Sullivan’s first book was Commencement, the story of four friends who attend Smith College together?
Her latest novel, which she told us a little about at the luncheon, is Friends and Strangers and it was just released last week. Of all of her novels, this is by far the one I felt I could most easily relate to. This novel tells the story of two women at two different phases in their lives.
Elisabeth is an accomplished journalist who is in the process of writing her third novel. She has just given birth to a baby boy named Gilbert and has moved with her little family from Brooklyn to Upstate New York. She is not particularly happy about this move, but they have moved for her husband Andrew’s new venture and to be closer to his parents. It seems a very far cry from her hip and trendy Brooklyn. “The place where the undercover rich people live.”
Elisabeth is experiencing something that we all experienced when moving to the suburbs from the big city: loneliness, sadness for the big life we once led, and a little bit of post-partum since the move occurs right after she has given birth to Gilbert.
Sam is a 21-year-old talented artist and student at the local private girls’ college who Elisabeth hires to babysit for Gilbert three days a week. Sam is struggling to figure out what to do when she graduates, while also involved in a long-distance relationship with a man 11 years older who lives in London. She has student loans, and she feels a bit adrift due to the socioeconomic differences between her and her friends. Until this year when she started babysitting, Sam worked in the Dining Hall at school to help pay for her tuition. She finds that she really can’t find her place. Is she meant to move to NYC after graduation or to London to be with her boyfriend? Where does she belong? I think we can all remember being 21 and thinking that the career and life decisions that we were making, were the most important decisions we would ever have to make in our lives.
Elisabeth and Sam become very close. I could very easily relate to their relationship because when I was in college I babysat for a family with two kids and I felt very much a part of their family. The mother probably confided in me about far too many things, but for me, it was a home away from home. I loved the kids, loved being with them, and helping them with their homework. It was a nice break from the day to day college life while I was also earning all of my spending money. It was also nice to have a mother figure to talk to about schoolwork, careers, boyfriends, etc. We became very close and are still close to this day.
Elisabeth sees herself in Sam because she remembers being Sam’s age and being so eager to start her life. Elisabeth soon finds herself in the role of helping Sam make the right choices for her life. She feels that she can help Sam avoid making the same mistakes she did. What she doesn’t realize is that life is all about making mistakes when you’re young and learning from those mistakes.
Elisabeth is going through many of the changes and decisions that we all faced when we became new mothers. How will she ever get anything done again? How can she ever go back to work? Will she ever stop looking like a sleep-deprived zombie? Will she ever sleep through the night again? Will her body ever be hers again? She becomes obsessed with a Mom’s group on Facebook to escape her own worries and thoughts. All the while, she has a sister who is an influencer on Instagram and is constantly photographed in a bikini with her gorgeous body on a perfect island somewhere.
Elisabeth’s best friend Nomi from Brooklyn tells Elisabeth “you focus on someone else’s problems when you want to avoid whatever’s upsetting you in your own life. That’s your thing.” Nomi tells her that she is doing this with Sam and she should back off. Unfortunately, Elisabeth doesn’t take this advice and goes too far. The implications are permanent.
While this book does take on serious issues, there were some very comical parts to it that had me laughing out loud. J. Courtney writes things that I myself have thought a million times.
When Elisabeth is in the waiting room at a fertility clinic debating whether or not to go through IVF for a second child she feels the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife, but remembers the one time “ a man’s phone erupted with You down with OPP and he could not seem to turn it off, it was the greatest thing that ever happened, or would ever happen.”
At one point, Nomi calls Elisabeth to tell her that she is sure her husband is having an affair. Elisabeth tells her this is nonsense. Nomi asks how she can be so sure; isn’t it always the ones you least suspect? To this Elisabeth answers, “No, it’s the ones you least suspect when it comes to murder. It’s the ones you suspect when it comes to infidelity.”
Ultimately, this book is about friendship and the various types of friendships we need and want at different times in our lives. There are the everlasting friendships that you know will always be there. There are the friendships that require too much work and eventually die off, and there are the friendships that you need at a certain point in your life to get you from Point A to Point B. These friendships shape the person you become. As J. Courtney Sullivan so eloquently puts it, “As you made your way through life, there were people who stuck, the ones who stayed around forever and whom you came to need as much as you needed water or air. Others were meant to keep you company for a time. In the moment, you rarely knew which would be which.”
Friends and Strangers
By: J. Courtney Sullivan
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Knopf Publishing Group