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A Babysitter, Her Employer and $46 Hand Soap


FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
By J. Courtney Sullivan

One of the great pleasures of reading fiction — always but especially lately, when isolation so limits our voyeuristic opportunities in the real world — is the potential for snooping, for pulling back the curtain and observing, unseen, lives unfold. This was also, in my view, one of the great pleasures of babysitting. Fittingly, J. Courtney Sullivan’s fifth novel, which examines the intricate relationship between a babysitter and her employer, begins in the middle of the night, in the middle of the suburbs — “Nobody up at this hour besides mothers and insomniacs” — from which promising vantage point we’re given delightful permission to sit back and spy.

At the heart of “Friends and Strangers” is the complex dynamic that’s familiar to anyone who has been on either the providing or receiving end of professional child care. But drawn by Sullivan’s deft hand, the relationship feels authentic and richly textured. Elisabeth is a new mom — a writer and a reluctant suburbanite, recently transplanted upstate from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn — whose narrative voice is characterized by an unflagging snobbishness and a somewhat joyless, acerbic outlook. To her therapist’s suggestion that she might be suffering from postpartum depression, Elisabeth demurs, “No, I’ve always been like this.” But the real pleasure comes from spending time with endearingly earnest Sam, the college senior and aspiring painter whom Elisabeth hires to babysit her infant son. “Sam was traditional,” Elisabeth muses at one point. “Sam painted her grandmother on a porch while her peers were pinning pubic hair to a corkboard and calling it art.”

The novel branches off in myriad directions, some more fruitful than others. And it has a densely populated cast of characters. On Elisabeth’s side, there’s the affable husband, who wants another baby; the wealthy meddling father, whose money she smugly rejects; the no-nonsense Brooklynite best friend; the con artist/aspiring Instagram influencer sister; the Eckhart Tolle-disciple therapist; the dull group of book club moms she meets on her suburban street; and her kindly in-laws, who are on the brink of financial ruin. On Sam’s side, which feels more authentically inhabited, there’s a charmingly oblivious roommate, a set of well-meaning but overburdened parents, a host of co-workers in the kitchen of the college’s dining hall and, most prominently, her fabulously loathsome boyfriend, Clive — British, 10 years her senior and employed in London giving guided tours about Jack the Ripper — who is prone to amusing pretentiousness (“I’m not overly interested in scripted films anymore”).

These characters yield a number of snaking plotlines, but Elisabeth’s voice takes over the narrative, and is so consistently, monotonically disdainful that one wishes less time could be devoted to these extraneous stories and more to the endlessly complicated — and ultimately doomed — relationship between her and Sam, which is ripe with unexplored fodder.

Sam’s plight is the most fully realized and the most compelling. She’s in a hurry to figure herself out, and young enough still to be defined by her idealism. “But you’re a feminist, right?” she asks Elisabeth, who replies: “I don’t even know what that word means anymore. They use it to sell soap now.” A self-professed “chameleon, programmed to change as needed in order to be liked,” Sam is an adaptable and wide-eyed lens through which we’re able to see the world of the novel. She’s also, notably, the lens through which we’re able to most clearly see Elisabeth. Sam takes us along for an intriguing ride, showing what it’s like to inhabit someone else’s space and care for someone else’s child, to be pulled by the siren song of other people’s lives — their trappings. Along the way, she debunks the seemingly offhand casualness of Elisabeth’s existence; it is, in fact, a highly curated one. And Elisabeth, who appears so at ease in her skin — “effortless, uncultivated,” in Sam’s assessment — is in fact the opposite. Beneath Elisabeth’s sink, Sam finds a bag full of hospital-issued postpartum pads and marvels: “It seemed impossible that someone as elegant as Elisabeth could be subjected to such degradation.”

The novel is rife with terrific moments like this. An anxious Elisabeth takes pleasure when the quiet of a somber fertility clinic waiting room is disrupted by someone’s Naughty by Nature ringtone (“It was the greatest thing that had ever happened, or would ever happen”); Sam sleuths to discover that Elisabeth’s allegedly-from-the-drugstore hand soap actually cost $46; the try-hard balloon archway Elisabeth purchases for her son’s first birthday party leads passers-by to mistakenly assume she’s having an open house. And it’s in these quiet, humanizing scenes, rather than in the exploration of broader existential questions or class dynamics, that Sullivan’s novel comes to life.

“Friends and Strangers” is a big novel with big ideas. Sullivan sets out to cover a lot of terrain, from systemic inequality and the true definition of privilege to the bizarre social doctrine of dorm life and the politics of suburban book clubs. But where this novel shines brightest is in her patchwork of spot on minutiae, her honest rendering of what happens behind closed doors.



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