From “Maine” to “Commencement” to her best work, “Saints for All Occasions,” J. Courtney Sullivan’s books have received critical plaudits and adorned bestseller lists. In clear, unobtrusive prose, with ingenious and engrossing plots, Sullivan incisively explores the fraught, fraying, and perdurable bonds of family and friendship.
In her new worthy but flawed novel, “Friends and Strangers,” the relationship between employer and employee comes in for Sullivan’s special attention. The book centers on two points of view: those of Elizabeth, a married writer from an affluent family, and of Sam, a college student from a working-class background whom Elizabeth hires to care for her baby, Gil.
Elizabeth and her husband, Andrew, have recently moved out of Brooklyn to an upstate college town where Andrew has received a one-year fellowship. Elizabeth is dodging her agent’s queries about a next book and Andrew’s requests to do another round of in vitro fertilization, even as she’s grappling with the exigencies of new motherhood. She’s “semi-estranged” from her wealthy, philandering father, her “withholding, inattentive mother,” and her Instagram influencer sister, Charlotte. Narcissists all. She misses the vibrancy and sophistication of New York City and derides the well-meaning if somewhat vapid women in her new community (there is one very funny scene at a nightmare book group meeting).
Sam, intelligent, earnest, and artistic, is a top student at the college, but saddled with student loans and a job in the dining hall. She yearns for a life with more ease and peace in it. Working for Elizabeth gives her access to that seemingly serene and privileged life and a seemingly wise and generous mentor. Soon the two women exchange confidences, Sam begins coming over regularly for dinner and movie nights with the adults, and the line between professional and personal gets very blurry indeed.
Both women are in vexed romantic relationships. Sam is semi-engaged to Clive, a British tour guide a dozen years her senior, and isn’t sure how settling down with him will square with her educational and professional ambitions. Elizabeth loathes Clive and schemes to detach Sam from him.
Elizabeth and Andrew, meanwhile, haven’t had sex since Gil’s birth, and a secret festers between them. A few years earlier, Elizabeth drained their savings account to loan money to Charlotte, not out of sisterly love or generosity but because she wanted to prevent Charlotte from approaching their father for funds. Not long thereafter, believing they had a nest egg, Andrew gave up a solid, steady, well-paying job to launch a new career as an inventor, and Elizabeth’s contempt for his idea of a “solar-powered grill” burrows its way into every aspect of their relationship.
Money and its corrosive effects, debt and its crushing burden, poverty and its quiet desperation — all are big themes here. Andrew’s father, George, has an idea for a book called “The Hollow Tree,” one that would explore “the plight of the common man,” “the dark side of the gig economy,” the oppressive cost of college, the brokenness of our healthcare system, and all the other things Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders lament. While Elizabeth scorns George as hopelessly naive and condescendingly dismisses his “pointless endeavor,” Sam sees the value in his ideas and soon begins to attend the discussion group he’s organized. With George as her cheerleader, she devises a plan to help her fellow dining hall workers, most of whom are women of color. And it’s via George that Sam learns Elizabeth isn’t who she seems.
Sam is a wonderful authorial creation, endearing and flawed and complicated in recognizably human and compelling ways. Sullivan exquisitely captures the intoxication of young love, the way that romantic relationships offer a sense of expansive promise even as they threaten to constrict us, the liminal state between childhood and adulthood inhabited by college students. She deftly depicts Sam's friendships with her wealthy, spoiled, but funny and smart roommate, Isabella, and her fellow dining hall workers.
Sam admires and envies what she perceives to be Elizabeth’s perfect life. She sees Elizabeth’s glamour as “effortless”; “she aspire[s] to be more like her.” It’s necessary for us to enter Elizabeth’s head in order to see how wrong Sam is about her, but giving half the book to Elizabeth was a mistake. “No one in her life, with the exception of the baby, would be able to stand her if they knew what she was thinking,” Elizabeth muses at one point. Unfortunately, she is correct.
Elizabeth is a manipulative, deceptive, and judgmental woman who thinks and does some truly awful things, but we are meant (mostly) to empathize with her. Spending time in her head can be irritating, tedious, and frustrating. She isn’t a compellingly unlikable person — her ethical and moral deficiencies aren’t especially interesting — and many of her missteps and misdeeds feel motivated by the demands of plot rather than character.
This novel should have been largely Sam’s, and in the Epilogue, it’s as if Sullivan belatedly realizes this: We are given only Sam’s thoughts. This Epilogue wraps things up in a tidy and relentlessly optimistic way; a more satisfying conclusion would have been more open-ended.
Sullivan’s style is unfussy and straightforward; no fashionable metafiction, no authorial flourishes or showy allusions for her. Sincere, earnest, and well-meaning, intermittently funny and always smart, “Friends and Strangers” is ultimately a bit disappointing.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf, 416 pp., $27.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.‘'