Review: Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Hey yo, suburban mom check.

In all seriousness, reading the blurb of this book, I had an inkling it would remind me of the film Tully, which I talked about here, featuring that intimate bond that forms instantly in close quarters between moms and caretakers of a newborn baby. Being on the receiving end of someone’s non-judgemental and kind spoken nature was magnetic. So I started reading.

“It was five o’clock in the morning. In a moment, the baby would wake. She wondered how long their bodies would remain in sync like this, hers anticipating what his was about to do.”

It’s like those people that wake right before their alarm clock goes off. Science?

Within the first page, I felt the potential this book would hold. I usually mark passages I like throughout my reading experience but then out of laziness tend to not write it down after I’m done reading. But this book was too good to forget what I liked about it. I felt it in those lines that immediately provoked an “oh, I know that feeling.” Like each sentence presents a memory of its own. I mean, let me ask the audience:

“Carrying out otherwise mundane tasks in a foreign country felt like an achievement. Small victories like catching the right train or learning the funny names of things in the grocery store: Rocket. Aubergine. Fairy cakes.

I love this.

And:

Elisabeth scrolled until she came to the place where she’d left off before bed.

Or this next detail, painting how Elisabeth lurks in the mom FB group so much, she remembers past milestones of the others: “Mimi Winchester, who had recently purchased a townhouse for three million, was selling a used boy’s coat, size 2T, for nine dollars.”

The ins and outs of Facebook groups, similar to WhatsApp groups, you can quickly catch someone’s personality based on their replies. 

“Half the pleasure of the group was talking about it with someone in real life. ”

This right here captures exactly why I watch certain people on Youtube only to later discuss them in real life with my younger sister.

I took joy in passages that felt revealing on the intimacy of everyday thoughts.

“She wished she had thought to record the conversation, or that she had brought a pen and paper to take notes. Maybe there was a book in all this. The pitfalls of trying to make friends in middle age, or suburban moms who drink too much.”

“It was her way of drawing a line between them and herself, playing the observer so she didn’t have to care whether or not she fit in. She’d been doing it all her life. Andrew said she was like this because she was a writer, but he had that backward; she was a writer because she was like this.”

I wonder if writers really note down real life conversations to later build on that in their own world.

Though I was impressed by the writing, I couldn’t shake of my growing annoyance at Elisabeth’s privilege. Like, I couldn’t bear to hear her complain about some slight inconvenience in her rich life because that would require an absurd amount of patience that I simply do not possess right now. Oh, woe is Elisabeth…

What is privilege? Read this:

“Elisabeth felt guilty enough without the reminders from George. When they still lived in the city, they got food delivered almost every night for dinner, even after she read an article about how the website they ordered from was killing restaurants. She always meant to tip in cash, because the article said it was the only way to be sure the delivery guy got the money. But many nights, she didn’t have any small bills, so she just added the tip online and hoped for the best, giving the man who arrived at her door an extra-wide smile as she took the warm paper bag from his hands.

This made me frustrated. This is why I could not warm up to her character. If anything, the author succeeded at writing that one person we all know who’s completely unaware to the world around her. The author knew what she was doing with crafting this character. I could definitely see Elisabeth growing to be like Elena Richardson in Little Fires Everywhere.

#little fires everywhere from dumb bitch energy.

Elisabeth becoming aware of her privilege at the end was too quickly skimmed over, in my eyes. It didn’t leave a lasting impression. I’m sure a lot of white suburban moms will read this book so I wished it would’ve lingered a bit more on those moments and discussions that raise difficult questions.

Sam, a struggling college student, coming in right at this time to save the day was much needed. Having this dual-perspective made me love this book more. Even seeing Elisabeth through Sam’s eyes made me view her differently. Sam definitely understood the assignment.

“They never had actual voice-to-voice contact anymore. There were no hellos or goodbyes, just an ongoing conversation that they picked up and ended several times throughout the course of a day.״

When I think back on all my favorite parts of this book, Sam is always present. She left a lasting impression. More so, the nature of her changing relationships during her senior year of college. Oh, and Clive the Creep? No, thank you. I felt so annoyed when Sam would have these moments of clarity sneaking into her conscious of “hmm, maybe this way older dude isn’t for me…” And then she would just push it right back down because she wasn’t ready for things to change. It’s so frustrating seeing someone you love waste their best years on someone who doesn’t deserve them.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Sam said.
“I’m taking notes,” Clive replied. “That’ll be us before long.”
He stood behind Sam and wrapped his arms around her. Elisabeth wanted to snatch Sam away, to carry her to safety. For the first time ever, she wondered if she ought to call Sam’s mother.”

I felt this throughout the book. How do you stop someone from making a colossal mistake?

Also, captivating is the psychology behind our thinking. Like, Sam and Elisabeth each think their own thoughts about the other’s actions but don’t feel the need to share because they’re on good terms and why sour the mood. I support your choice even if I silently disagree. But then when it all comes racing out, what has been pent up inside of them throughout the novel, it felt cathartic.

“But I know you, Sam. You have this great family, you love kids, you’re super mature. You want to skip the big steps and be there. But everyone has to take those steps. It’s all the mistakes you make in the middle that determine how strong you are at the end. You can’t hide behind this thing with Clive forever.”

They see each other clearly with all their faults and imperfections. Everything Elisabeth voices is something Sam has thought before in her own mind but then pushed away because she’d rather not say goodbye to this chapter in her life. It’s beyond difficult trying to stop someone to see the mistake they’re about to make.

The psychology of planting a seed in someone’s mind and hoping it grows in their mind in the right moment. Like, Sam using someone else’s words in an argument. Ah, just those feelings of finally confronting what you’ve been running from was an experience to read here.

The hardest lessons were the ones you had to learn over and over again.”

Readers who would like to delve more deeper into the discussions brought forth, check out Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Also, readers who enjoy the observance of every day life will see it mirrored in Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer.

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