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Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
Contemporary fiction

Friends and Strangers

by J. Courtney Sullivan

Excellent choice

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Quick take

A long, hard look at motherhood, privilege, and what happens when an unlikely female friendship grows complicated.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_WellKnownAuthor

    Famous author

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FemaleFriendship

    Female friendships

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SuburbanDrama

    Suburban drama

Synopsis

Elisabeth, an accomplished journalist and new mother, is struggling to adjust to life in a small town after nearly twenty years in New York City. Alone in the house with her infant son all day (and awake with him much of the night), she feels uneasy, adrift. She neglects her work, losing untold hours to her Brooklyn moms' Facebook group, her "influencer" sister's Instagram feed, and text messages with the best friend she never sees anymore. Enter Sam, a senior at the local women's college, whom Elisabeth hires to babysit. Sam is struggling to decide between the path she's always planned on and a romantic entanglement that threatens her ambition. She's worried about student loan debt and what the future holds. In short order, they grow close. But when Sam finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Elisabeth's father-in-law, the true differences between the women's lives become starkly revealed and a betrayal has devastating consequences.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Friends and Strangers.
Friends and Strangers

I

Elisabeth

She awakened to silence. Nobody up at this hour besides mothers and insomniacs. She did not need to look at the clock to know that within seconds the baby would cry, and she would lift him from his bassinet before her eyes were quite open, exhaustion giving way to acceptance, devotion, as she held the warm heft of him in her arms.

A flash of hot rage sparked in her at the sight of her sleeping husband, but just as quickly it was gone, and she was changing the diaper, walking downstairs, wondering what would happen if she dropped the baby, if he died. The answer as familiar as the question: she would go out a window. That settled, Elisabeth kissed the top of his head.

A video affirmation she had found online began, in soothing tones, Every time I nurse my child, I drink a glass of water. In this way, I remember that I too deserve care. Filling a glass of water required more than she had at the moment, but she thought it was good enough that she knew she ought to.

In the living room, her eyes adjusted. She saw the black and blue shadows of the glass and gold coffee table with which she would soon have to part, the pair of armchairs, the potted fiddle-leaf fig tree, seven feet tall. She had arranged these items in the exact configuration they had occupied in the Brooklyn apartment, but somehow it all looked different here.

Elisabeth reached under the sofa and pulled out the ugly pillow with the stupid name. My Brest Friend. Someone, she couldn’t remember who, had given it to her as a shower gift, swearing that it was a godsend. This turned out to be true, even though she felt like she was wearing a life preserver around her waist whenever she put it on.

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Why I love it

Friends and Strangers is a book about living an authentic, fulfilling life. Told through the alternating perspectives of two women, the novel presents two coming-of-age stories: one of a young mother and another of her college-aged nanny. It’s a compelling book that takes on modern issues surrounding adulthood, motherhood, and class.

From the outside, Elisabeth seems to have it all. She has a beautiful baby, a loving husband, and a three-book publishing deal. But when she and her family move from Brooklyn to her husband’s hometown in upstate New York, her well-maintained façade cracks. Lonely, exhausted, and unable to find time to focus on her next book, Elisabeth hires a part-time nanny, Sam. What follows is the formation of an unlikely friendship that changes the course of the two women’s lives.

Friends and Strangers ultimately reveals that happiness comes from authenticity and purpose, rather than wealth, success, or secrets. Sullivan’s clever writing makes this pick the perfect summer read—delicious and compelling through the last word.

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Member ratings (2,485)

  • Barbara C.

    Salinas, CA

    Absolutely loved this book and will be reading more from this author. Her characters are so believable and the relationships between them are so interesting and illustrate the complexities of them. ❤️

  • Lydia L.

    Cypress , TX

    This book covered so many issues. Motherhood, what constitutes real friendship and how it’s affected when you are also an employee, the growing divide between the haves and have nots and much more.

  • Alexandria L.

    Georgetown, KY

    Maybe this was a case of "right book, right time." I found myself wanting to highlight certain sentences because Sullivan was so on point with her understanding of complex relationships. A great read.

  • Elizabeth C.

    Cumberland, VA

    I was predisposed to like this novel, because I myself am a nanny, similar to Sam’s character in the book. I didn’t expect to love it. The characters are complex and the story isn’t predictable.

  • Jodi F.

    Chicago, IL

    I saw myself (at different times in my life) in both main characters. I would have like the epilogue to have been a little longer and a bit fuller. I think there was still more story left to tell :)

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