Summer Book Preview: Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Oh, the mistakes we make when we are just trying to help.

Bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan tackles two of the more trying times in a woman’s life — the impending sense of “What’s next?” when graduating from college, and the impending sense of “What the hell?” when becoming a mother — in “Friends and Strangers,” due out June 30.

That said, there’s so much more to this story of two women, Elisabeth and Sam. More, in that both of the novel’s protagonists can’t seem but to step in it when, from their viewpoint, they are trying to make someone’s world a better place. Even if that someone really, at the end of the day, is them.

Elisabeth is a New York Times reporter-turned-author, trying to adjust to small town New York life when she, her husband Andrew and their baby Gil leave the city to live the small college town life near Andrew’s parents. Andrew’s dad George is spending what should be his golden years trying to fight the Man that took away the everyman’s dream of making a solid living and Andrew’s mom Faye is busy trying to remove the invisible stick she think is up Elisabeth’s butt.

Sam is a college senior struggling with a kinda-sorta engagement to a British man nearly 15 years her senior, not sure if she’s in love with him or just the idea of him, all the while trying to take up the cause of the minimum wage cafeteria workers on campus while juggling friendships with a rather elite student population. When Sam starts babysitting for Elisabeth, a friendship forms, then deepens, then fractures, with only themselves to blame.

Friends and Strangers was a welcome change up after such a dark (but excellent) read in “My Dark Vanessa.” I found myself contemplating the plot points that advance the storyline (Should I have another baby? Should I marry this guy? What if my husband finds out I lied about XXX?) and considering them from different perspectives. For example, would my marriage survive Elisabeth’s financial scheming? Err, probably not. Then again, I don’t think I could ever do what she did. Which led me to consider if it was realistic. I’d rather not risk giving it away, so I’ll just say this — just because I can’t see myself doing what Elisabeth does doesn’t it make it unrealistic, but … yeah.

What I did find realistic, though? The compulsive need to follow Facebook groups for the sole purpose of hate reading the commentary. And don’t you dare say you’ve never done that. C’mon now. I feel you, Elisabeth, and so does anyone that belongs to a baby or elementary school or high school or college group.

And then there’s Sam — who, while justifiably pissed at a late-in-the-novel betrayal, can’t seem to admit that perhaps that betrayal saves her from herself. Too scared to be alone and staying with a guy for all the wrong reasons. And someone, like all of us, that needed the reality check she got from her cafeteria worker pal, that reminded her that her perspective on life wasn’t nearly as clear cut as she thought.

This is a great “dysfunctional family/coming-of-age” read, and I’m genuinely curious as to how others will react to Elisabeth and Sam. I think you can really enjoy a story and still find some characters unlikable. One of the things that kept me from putting it down was waiting to see what Andrew did to keep Elisabeth from being an anti-hero. It felt strange, in a good way, that an author would allow a protagonist to do the wrong thing without having it balance out in the end. But no, she kinda lets her hang herself, and that is refreshing in and of itself.

Maybe this can be everyone’s first pick at an indie bookshop this summer — fingers crossed we’re not still all downloading ebooks by then!

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