Get a sneak peek at Sullivan's Friends and Strangers, including a cover reveal and first excerpt.
J. Courtney Sullivan is returning to a theme that launched her career as a novelist: the tricky, intensely complex terrain of friendship.
The best-selling Commencement author will next publish Friends and Strangers this summer, a portrait of the relationship between two women at very different stages of their life: a journalist and new mother who’s struggling to adjust to small-town life, and a senior at the local women’s college who she hires to babysit. The two grow close until the true differences between the women’s lives become starkly revealed, and leads to a betrayal that has devastating consequences.
The novel’s roots are autobiographical. “My senior year at Smith, I babysat three days a week for an infant whose family had just moved to western Massachusetts from New York,” she tells EW. “The baby’s mother, Catherine, and I grew close. I was fresh off a year abroad, and had returned to college feeling like I’d outgrown the place. Catherine was adjusting to motherhood and a life far from her friends.”
As she moved to New York, lost touch, and even had an encounter with Catherine where she wasn’t recognized, Sullivan kept thinking back on their dynamic, and found (fictional) inspiration in it: “Three years ago, pregnant with my first child, I started writing [Friends and Strangers], using my own experience as a jumping-off point, but making the relationship between the two women deeper, weirder, thornier than the real one had been.”
Sullivan, who most recently published the acclaimed Saints for All Occasions in 2017, says the heart of the novel is “a friendship between two women a generation apart…so intense and specific to a moment that it can’t possibly last, but it shapes the course of both their lives,” but adds that she hopes it’ll shed light on “the pre-Trump years,” exploring privilege, the gig economy, and more.
EW can exclusively reveal the cover for Friends and Strangers below. “it was love at first sight,” Sullivan raves of the design. “The image conjures up an intimate conversation between two women, and the secrets that start pouring out after the wine gets poured. It’s just so evocative and gorgeous. Unpublished book jackets are like baby names. If you share them too early, you’re likely to hear lots of opinions. But I can’t help but show this one off, and everyone who sees it swoons.”
Friends and Strangers publishes June 23. Check out the cover below, as well as an exclusive excerpt. The novel is available for pre-order.
Excerpt from Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan
She awakened to silence. Nobody up at this hour besides mothers and insomniacs. She did not need to look at the clock to know that within seconds the baby would cry, and she would lift him from his bassinet before her eyes were quite open, exhaustion giving way to acceptance, devotion, as she held the warm heft of him in her arms.
A flash of hot rage sparked in her at the sight of her sleeping husband, but just as quickly it was gone, and she was changing the diaper, walking downstairs, wondering what would happen if she dropped the baby, if he died. The answer as familiar as the question: she would go out a window. That settled, Elisabeth kissed the top of his head.
A video affirmation she had found online began, in soothing tones, Every time I nurse my child, I drink a glass of water. In this way, I remember that I too deserve care. Filling a glass of water required more than she had at the moment, but she thought it was good enough that she knew she ought to.
In the living room, her eyes adjusted. She saw the black and blue shadows of the glass-and-gold coffee table with which she would soon have to part, the pair of armchairs, the potted fig tree, seven feet tall. She had arranged these items in the configuration they had occupied in the Brooklyn apartment, but somehow it all looked different here.
Elisabeth reached under the sofa and pulled out the ugly pillow with the stupid name. My Brest Friend. Someone, she couldn’t remember who, had given it to her as a shower gift, swearing that it was a godsend. This turned out to be true, even though she felt like she was wearing a life preserver around her waist whenever she put it on.
She sat down, laying the baby across her padded lap. She lifted her T-shirt, unhooked her bra. He latched on and began to suck, an easy rhythm that had seemed impossible four months ago. In order to be discharged from the hospital after giving birth, she was required to attend an hour-long class about breastfeeding. The entire time, Elisabeth kept falling asleep, waking when her head slammed against the wall behind her.
She held her phone aloft in one hand now, above the baby’s head, and used her thumb to navigate to Facebook. Straight to the BK Mamas page, as usual. Elisabeth scrolled until she came to the place where she’d left off before bed. The page buzzed with questions from mothers at all hours. They kept one another company there. She imagined the rows of brownstones in the old neighborhood, bathed in blackness but for the tiny screens, lit up, connecting them all.
There was a post from a woman looking for tips on flying cross-country with a toddler. Elisabeth read all thirteen responses with interest, even though she didn’t have a toddler or plans to fly anytime soon. Someone was asking about the flu shot. Someone else needed a unicorn birthday cake on short notice. Mimi Winchester, who had recently purchased a town house for three million, was selling a used boys’ coat, size 2T, for nine dollars.
Elisabeth had once mocked women like this—women who graduated from prestigious universities and excelled in their chosen fields, only to be felled by the prospect of clipping a newborn’s fingernails. Now they were her survival. The only people alive who cared about the exact things she did at this moment, with as much intensity, the people with all the answers. They were learning an evolving language, one you spoke for a week or two before everything changed again. What else to do with that accrued knowledge but share it. Someone with a child six weeks older than hers was a prophet.
She switched sides after ten minutes. A new post popped up.
Slightly off topic, but . . . last month, as usual, my husband was a no-show on a visit to my parents in Minneapolis. While I was there, I ran into my college boyfriend, recently divorced. Now we’re texting at all hours. Is this an emotional affair? Am I supposed to stop? Because dammit, it’s FUN, and I think I deserve some fun.
In her profile picture, the woman was blonde and smiling and toned, a tall guy’s arms wrapped around her. They stood on a white sand beach, palm trees in the distance. Their honeymoon, maybe. Half the women still used their wedding photos, including, Elisabeth had noticed, the ones who complained most about their useless husbands.
The secrets they divulged to one another amazed her. The group was marked Private, but that only meant that you had to ask to join. There were 4,237 members, and in theory at least, most of them lived within twenty blocks of one another. Yet it felt like a safe space. At once intimate and anonymous.
The same fifteen women commented on everything, each with her own predictable slant on the issue of the day.
When someone asked about whether to have a third kid, the self-righteous environmentalist said that she had not done so because of fears about global warming and her family’s carbon footprint; someone posted an easy chicken recipe, and the Environmentalist wrote a manifesto in the comments section about why she was raising her kids vegan.
Mimi Winchester managed to complain about her brownstone (she’d kill for open concept), her cleaning lady (she wouldn’t do windows), and even, somehow, her Hamptons house (traffic!).
The nanny tattlers loved to report any sitter they saw feeding a child junk food or talking on the phone to a degree they deemed excessive. There were also those who stood up for any nanny’s behavior, no matter how terrible.
Elisabeth’s best friend, Nomi, said her greatest source of irritation was the friends who didn’t come to them with problems but instead posted them to the BK Mamas page. Last spring, their college friend Tanya, who also lived in the neighborhood, spent an entire dinner making small talk, only to post to the board two days later that she was on the hunt for a divorce attorney.
“I’m not acknowledging it unless she tells me directly,” Nomi said.
“I think she assumes you’ll see it on Facebook and then ask her
about it,” Elisabeth said.
“Well, I won’t.”
Elisabeth, like most people, was a lurker, rarely commenting, never posting, despite the time she logged reading the page each day.
Within five minutes, twelve women said that what the smiling blonde was up to with her college boyfriend was nothing but a harmless flirtation. Ten others said to cut it off immediately.
This sort of question appeared once a month or so, standing out
among so many queries about potty training and playgroups. Some- one would confess a husband’s alcoholism or infidelity, or a disturbing desire to run away, and everyone else would reply in a rush, energized by being in possession of a secret.
They were the posts Elisabeth told Andrew about the next morning, even though she knew he didn’t care. Half the pleasure of the group was talking about it with someone in real life. She missed Wednesdays in Brooklyn, when Nomi worked from home and would meet her at the crepe place on Court Street for lunch.
She kept revisiting their last lunch in her mind. How they sat and talked, both unwilling to end the conversation, until the kid behind the counter said it was closing time. Then they lingered on the sidewalk in the sticky August heat, as they had done in the parking lot on the day they left college.
Nomi once swore she’d never live in Brooklyn. The first time she came out from Manhattan for brunch, just before she climbed into a taxi, she swept her hand across Elisabeth’s forehead like Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were and said, “Your borough is lovely, Hubbell.” But it was another two years before she and Brian moved. They bought a three-bedroom in a new-build high-rise with an elevator and a swimming pool. Elisabeth had only ever lived in dusty walk-ups, with crown moldings and creaky wooden floors. Places that were listed as having character and charm, if not central air or laundry in the building.
She attributed the longevity of their friendship at least in part to the fact that she and Nomi had opposite tastes in men and real estate. It was impossible for either of them to be jealous of the other.
“Am I making a huge mistake?” Elisabeth said as they parted, locked in a hug, the baby asleep in the stroller at her side.
“Yes,” Nomi said. “You are.”
“That is not a supportive answer.”
“I’m still mad at you for leaving.”
“I always said I was going to.”
“But you’d been saying it for so long, I stopped believing you at some point.”
Elisabeth had been so lucky to have the friend who knew her best right nearby, all that time. She supposed this was another reason why she clung to a neighborhood Facebook group—it made her forget that she lived 250 miles away now, in a town where she had no friends.
I’m your friend, Andrew said.
Husbands don’t count.
He hadn’t made friends either, but he at least had coworkers and the odd amusing story to tell. Most days, Elisabeth took Gil for a walk after lunch and passed a playground where mothers stood in a cluster, gossiping, laughing.
Jesus, you’re not the new kid at middle school, she chided herself. Go over and say hello.
They were grown women. They had to be nice, at least to her face. But she couldn’t do it. Some mix of self-consciousness and fatigue stopped her. That, and the fear that she wouldn’t like them anyway.
Even as she talked herself out of wanting to know them, she hoped they might notice her and wave her over, but they never did.
The baby drank himself drunk and closed his eyes, his head an anchor seeking the bottom. Elisabeth carried him upstairs and lowered him gently, deliberately, into the bassinet, as if he was a bomb that might detonate if handled improperly.
In the hours before he woke again, she lay in bed unable to sleep. She knew she should find a way, that the day would be hectic. An interview with a potential babysitter, emails to answer, those stretches of time with an infant that got eaten up by she couldn’t say what. But she kept looking at the phone, eager to see how the BK Mamas were weighing in on the blonde woman’s emotional affair.
Violet, her therapist, would say that Elisabeth was trying to distract herself—from the secret she was keeping from her husband, from her father-in-law’s recent struggles, and from her relationship with her own parents, which had always been a mess, but had become more painful of late.
Elisabeth had gone to see Violet in the first place with no intention of returning week after week. She wanted someone to tell her she was clinically depressed, or anxious, or else that her worries, her spinning thoughts, could be explained by a protein deficiency. She wanted a clear diagnosis and a simple treatment she could buy at a pharmacy or a health-food store and feel working immediately.
That is so not how therapy works, Nomi said.
“Postpartum depression is real,” Violet said.
“I know it is, but no,” Elisabeth said. “I’ve always been like this.” She was only addressing it now because of Gil. She had an urge to fix herself before he became aware of all the ways in which she was broken.
Violet said to remember that thoughts are vapor. She said to read Eckhart Tolle.
When Elisabeth googled Violet, she came across an essay she’d written years earlier for an anthology about mothers and daughters, so she knew that Violet had no children, that her mother had died, that her dear old father was lost to Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes, when she complained about her family during a session, Elisabeth wondered if Violet was suppressing an urge to scream, My perfect mother dies, my dad doesn’t know who I am, while your shitty parents go on and on. How is this fair?
Violet yawned a lot, which hurt Elisabeth’s feelings.
Her eyes opened. She woke up. This was how Elisabeth could be certain she had slept. For ten minutes? An hour? Impossible to say.
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.
She checked BK Mamas on her phone while she waited.
A woman named Heather had posted around four, asking if, after two glasses of wine, it was necessary to pump and dump. The replies came swift, a resounding chorus of nos. Heather thanked them, then admitted that she was feeling guilty. About not getting enough vitamins, about having an Oreo when she had sworn to eat organic for the baby’s sake.
Guilt was their common bond.
Stop overthinking it, someone wrote.Multivariate regression analysis on the impact of that Oreo is a dangerous path.
Elisabeth considered this, amused.
The baby cried. The day began.
From the book: FRIENDS AND STRANGERS by J. Courtney Sullivan. Copyright © 2020 by J. Courtney Sullivan. To be published on June 23, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.