J. Courtney Sullivan writes a lot about female friendships.
Her 2010 novel, “Commencement,” was set at her alma mater, Smith College, and began as an homage to Mary McCarthy’s classic, “The Group,” which was set at Vassar College.
A gossipy neighborhood book club is reading “The Group” in Sullivan’s new novel, “Friends and Strangers,” which is about book clubs and message boards for moms such as the one Sullivan actually belonged to in Brooklyn, New York. It’s also about inequality on college campuses with some students working in the cafeteria and others studying abroad.
At the root of her new book is the intense but often momentary relationship between a babysitter and her employer. Sullivan describes it as “a very specific rite of passage.”
Babysitting is a powerful experience that is also ephemeral. Everyone involved — the hiring mom, the babysitter, the child — move on.
In the case of Sullivan’s fictional mom, Elisabeth, and the college girl she hires, Sam, they might have trouble recognizing one another. They were both friends and strangers.
This is exactly what happened to Sullivan when she ran into a mother at Smith College, 10 years after she had babysat for her daughter. Sullivan was walking to her car in the rain when a big SUV pulled up and she recognized the mother at the steering wheel.
“She very much put me on the path that I ended up on,” Sullivan says. “She really encouraged me to be a writer, which is what I wanted most of all the world, and introduced me to so many of her friends and was just such a lovely, lovely presence in my life.”
Sullivan waved and screamed hello, but the woman didn’t recognize her. She just kept on driving. This moment is what inspired her sixth novel.
“When you're a fiction writer, there are moments and ideas and things that have this kind of shimmer around them where, you know, I'm going to write about that,” Sullivan says.
But it wasn’t until several years went by and she was pregnant with her first child that Sullivan says this story was “really calling” to her.
“I felt like now I've been the babysitter, soon I'm going to be the mother,” she says. “I'm going to know what it's like for both of these women's points of view. And I'd love to write this kind of conversation between them, which in many ways is kind of a conversation with my younger self.”
Sullivan did finally get back in touch with that mother that she felt so close to while she was in college.
“I had a piece in The New York Times ... about babysitting, and I mentioned this woman in the piece, and she ended up emailing me, and so now we're back in touch, which is so wonderful,” she says. “Isn't that nice?”
Not only were they close back then, but Sullivan says this mother served as a possible model for adulthood during her college years. Babysitting also provided an early education into writing, she says.
“It's true that people say like no one knows what happens behind closed doors, but your babysitter does know because at a certain point you forget that the babysitter is there,” she says. “And that is where I sort of cut my teeth on being a nosy eavesdropper, which is essential for fiction writing.”
More From The Interview
On babysitting for a mother who had just lost her husband
“I had some really intense situations like you describe too. I cared for these two little girls when I was in college, and their mom asked me at one point, she said, 'My sister could really use your help.' So I said, 'Oh, OK.' And this poor woman, her husband had been a doctor, she had two little boys and she was like eight months pregnant with a third little boy and her husband died of cancer. ... I was coming into their home and this had just happened and the little baby had just been born when I first came along. And there was such an air of just, you know, sorrow. I mean, it was such a heartbreaking place to be.
“But then also, young children always add joy. So there was also joy and there was a brand new baby, which is a whole other emotional journey. And it just, I mean, I was such a part of their lives, and in that case, it was such a short time. I couldn't tell you their names now. I couldn't pick them out of a lineup, and I'm sure they couldn't [with] me either. But we just experienced this intensity together. And, you know, that happens with babysitting. I think that happens with friendships, too. Like, personally, the older I get, the more I'm just so grateful for my female friends. But I think you also do have these friendships over time, for whatever reason, you know, that friendship might actually change you in a very profound way, but not last. And I think that's what's going on in this book.”
Book Excerpt: '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.
Excerpted from Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan. Copyright © 2020 by J. Courtney Sullivan. Published on June 30, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
This segment aired on August 10, 2020.