Always on the lookout for a book we can literally sink our reading acumen into, Friends and Strangers popped up on our radar. Jan and I love books that start us on a journey down a path where we are immersed in character and motivation providing much valued discussion. We are grateful to have found such a story in Friends and Strangers.
“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.”
Friendship is fraught with nuance. Some friendships are meant to last forever, and some for only a season.
Elisabeth, a new mother, leaves her beloved NYC for a small town. She’s estranged from her wealthy family, and is lonely, adrift, and struggling to fit in. Sam is a college student hired by Elisabeth as her nanny. She comes from a very close-knit middle-class family, and is adrift in the rarefied world of wealth at an elite private university.
Elisabeth and Sam strike up a friendship, one where Sam envies Elisabeth who seems to have it all together, while Elisabeth sees Sam as someone with a future that’s an unwritten script she can help write.
Both, in different ways, think they know what is best for others. One is an idealist with a desire to enact change, and the other simply doesn’t mind meddling in others’ lives. You know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions….
The dual perspectives of two women from very different times in their lives is very revealing. Can we ever truly know anyone? Can we ever truly escape our past? Isn’t everyone who is a friend also, in many ways, a stranger? As a reader, we are privy to their inner thoughts and secrets and by the end, I think there’s something relatable for all of us.
Lest you think this is all seriousness with a capital S, if you are a fan of dysfunctional families, you are in for a treat with a Christmas dinner that makes the worst of our dysfunctional family get-togethers look like a Norman Rockwell scene. Maybe I have a twisted sense of humor but I found it hilarious.
For likable characters, Elisabeth’s father-in-law was by far my favorite. He is kind and lovable and has a theory of the Hollow Tree – a societal system where everything looks good from the outside until you look deeper and discover the hollow underbelly and the people left behind without a safety net. A concept that has never been more evident than during the pandemic of 2020/21. “Once you see the hollow tree, you see it everywhere”. Amen.
There are many relevant and thought-provoking themes that beg for discussion, which is exactly what my friend Marialyce and I did. This is on the short list of one of our most discussed books ever.
If you are looking for a lighter character-driven read with substance, I highly recommend! But be aware you won’t always like the characters or agree with their actions.
If you read this book be sure to watch the interview with Jenna Bush Hager and the author on Instagram @readwithjenna. It’s interesting and enlightening as well as completely entertaining.
How well do we really know another person? We could be married to them, be their best friend, or know them for countless years and yet there are always things, secret, things hidden that make them often a stranger to us.
Elizabeth and her husband have moved to a small town after living in the bright lights of New York City. Elizabeth having quit her job of being a writer, finds herself in a place where life seems to take a slower, backwards step and she feels adrift in the new climate she finds herself in. With a new baby plus a husband who goes to work, she sees herself as a woman whose life moved quickly to one where she struggles with what to do. She joins a book club, spends countless hours on the internet and finds herself caught in a pit of aimless banter. Aspiring to get herself back, she hires a young college student, Sam, to babysit and even though there is quite an age difference, Elizabeth finds herself becoming friends with Sam.
Sam is an achiever and on a trip to London meets a man, an older man, who seems to sweep her off her feet. They become serious and Sam seems to be caught up in a relationship that may cause grief for her boyfriend carries secrets as well as limited ambition. While back in the states, she forms an attachment to Elizabeth’s father-in-law and the two of them pursue the hollow man theory. Of course, once again we see the differences in age playing an important part in Sam’s growth.
As time continues, Elizabeth’s fondness grows for Sam, and she is in a state of constant concern and worry over Sam’s relationship with her boyfriend/fiance. Should she interfere or should she stay back? When the decision for Elizabeth comes, the whole relationship between she and Sam is shook and life takes a substantial turn for the both of them.
I so enjoyed this exploration into friendship and the background J. Courtney Sullivan gave us about her characters. It as a fine examination into both the ages of differences and that of knowing when to voice opinions and thoughts to others. It so well depicted the rut one sometimes falls into when no longer working, what life takes on a pace that one can’t adapt to, and how voices and change how one thinks can also carry resentment. Friendship that is wanted so badly often brings with it the inability to see differences and the very causes of those differences. Somehow class takes on a very definite role when acquiring what one to thinks can be a friend. The author’s characters are complex and their lives ones that beg for change and yet perhaps when it does come breeds resentment and ill feelings.
I recommend this story for its analysis into the minds and hearts of people who try too hard to be something they are ill equipped to be.
Jan and I loved this story for it gave to us so much to talk about. It was so in depth that we could have gone on talking about the characters, their motivations, and their eventual falling away. Definitely this is one we both heartily recommend, particularly excellent for book club discussions. We are always on the lookout for more of these type stories.
and here’s the author:
J. Courtney Sullivan is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Commencement, Maine, The Engagements, and Saints For All Occasions. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000, and it will be translated into 17 languages. Saints For All Occasions, was named one of the ten best books of the year by the Washington Post, a New York Times Critic’s Pick for 2017, and a New England Book Award nominee. Her fifth novel, Friends and Strangers, will be published in June 2020. Courtney’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among many others. She is a co-editor, with Courtney Martin, of the essay anthology Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. In 2017, she wrote the forewords to new editions of two of her favorite children’s books: Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. A Massachusetts native, Courtney now lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.