As problems go, a surfeit of money is a nice one to have. Some might argue, however, that wealth is like a set of weights: Those who have it will likely be stronger than those who don’t. But mishandle it, and the self-imposed strains can be painful.
The clash between rich and poor animates Friends and Strangers, J. Courtney Sullivan’s quietly perceptive new novel about two women on different sides of America’s economic divide: a new mother and the college-age nanny she hires for her son.
Elisabeth Ronson, a former New York Times journalist and author of two bestselling books, has moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York with her husband, Andrew, and Gil, their baby conceived through in vitro fertilization. The move was precipitated by the fellowship Andrew received from a nearby college to develop a solar-powered grill. Elisabeth won’t accept money from her rich, philandering father and insists that her needy sister, Charlotte, eager to build a lifestyle brand on Instagram, do the same.
As Sullivan skillfully shows, family is not Elisabeth’s only problem. Another is loneliness in her suburban neighborhood of stay-at-home mothers. Elisabeth also needs help caring for Gil as she struggles to write a third book, so she hires Sam, a senior at the town’s women’s college, to watch him.
Sullivan does a fine job depicting Elisabeth’s and Sam’s respective dilemmas, as Elisabeth learns to live on less money and Sam deals with her family’s meager finances. Among the well-drawn supporting characters are Clive, Sam’s English boyfriend who’s a decade her senior, and whom Elisabeth suspects may be taking advantage of her; George, Elisabeth’s father-in-law, who rails against the inequities of society; and the poorly paid staff at the college kitchen where Sam also works.
The tension sometimes wanes, but Friends and Strangers is at its best when Sullivan emphasizes the widening class difference in America between people who can afford $46 peony-scented hand soaps and those worried about meeting basic needs. Sullivan dares to further complicate her narrative by showing that financial security doesn’t guarantee happiness. The result is a poignant look at the biases of modern society.