You know that feeling when you near the end of a book and, in your excitement, you urge yourself to slow down to put off the inevitable conclusion? That feeling of wanting to savor every last second of the book is what reading is all about.
Every once in a while I find a book that I want to hold onto even after I have absorbed every line (more here), however, this feeling is not common for me. I read (i.e. listen to audiobooks) a lot, like around 100 books per year. At this speed, I try to do as little work as possible when I search for a new book. So, very often, I have no clue what the book is even about when I start reading it. This was the case with the latest book that I read, which turned out to be the most lovely surprise. (This post contains no spoilers.)
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan is the most charming tale and social commentary about life and relationships. On the surface, the plot follows Elisabeth, a new mother who hires a babysitter to look after her young son called Gil, and Sam, the chipper college senior, who babysits Gil. The two women strike up an unusual friendship and the story weaves between their two lives in the most engaging way. The action is set in the backdrop of an upstate New York college town with a host of characters including students, staff, professors, and townies. In the small town, the college is the center of civilization and it serves as a microcosm to explore issues of class, privilege, as well as the characters’ perceptions of others and their blind spots about themselves.
Friends and Strangers is fiction, but it is the sort of book that, even without spouting obscure facts, can teach you something. Specifically, by seeing the same world through both Elisabeth and Sam’s eyes, the reader can feel compassion for both characters even though their situations are like night and day. While the book is not a thriller, it can trick you in certain ways. The story unfolds in such a way that new information disrupts your perceptions and forces you to consider the characters in a new light. In this way, while there are no car chases or other adrenaline-inducing scenes, the pace is progressive and pressure builds and builds, urging you to turn the page and uncover more.
While I mention that the book is about relationships, it is certainly not a love story. Romantic relationships are explored, but on a human (rather than just a corporeal) level. The characters are so real that you may be disappointed by the ending, just because you want to know what happens after the final page. Just like in life, this story does not have a Hollywood ending where everything is revealed and all of the pieces perfectly fall into place. It ends just like things do in life — in the middle of things.
Overall, if you are a fan of literary fiction, in particular the works of Liane Moriarty, Jennifer Weiner, or Jojo Moyes do consider reading Friends and Strangers.