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Privilege Takes Many Forms In 'Friends And Strangers'


It is one of the most intimate and complicated relationships around, and for many women — and yes it's mostly women — an all-important one.

I'm talking about the relationship between a mother and her child's caregiver. And that's the relationship at the heart of author J. Courtney Sullivan's new novel, Friends and Strangers. She says the idea for the book came from her own experiences.

"I was a babysitter and I, my senior year of college in particular, I took care of a little baby whose family had just moved to western Massachusetts from New York City. And her mother and I grew very close," Sullivan says.

Ten years later, Sullivan crossed paths with the woman again — and realized she didn't remember their relationship at all. A novelist friend suggested she turn that story into a book, Sullivan says, "and it wasn't until several years later when I was pregnant with my first child, that I started thinking I might want to write it, because suddenly I had been both women, the mother and the babysitter."

Interview Highlights

On whether she identifies with both of the main characters in the book, mom Elisabeth and caregiver Sam

I absolutely do. You know, in some ways I see this book as kind of a conversation with my younger self. I think when you have a friendship between women of different ages, there's a sense of wanting to help the younger woman avoid the mistakes you've made. But they're not those kind of mistakes. They're the ones you have to make, on your own, to really figure out what is coming.

On her treatment of privilege

Well, from the very beginning of thinking about this book, I knew that class would play a big role in the story. And, you know, in many ways, this is a book about the gig economy, the shrinking safety net, the sort of weight of student loan debt and other forms of economic hardship on young people. And certainly also the notion that privilege takes many forms. So, Elisabeth is someone who comes from a lot of money, she has not accepted her family money, and therefore feels that she's sort of really above it and views herself actually as self-made, even though she really isn't. But even Sam sort of wrestles with the fact that although she is saddled with a lot of student loan debt and a lot of other things, you know, her education is a form of privilege. Her citizenship is a form of privilege.

In many ways, this is a book about the gig economy, the shrinking safety net, the sort of weight of student loan debt and other forms of economic hardship on young people. And certainly also the notion that privilege takes many forms.

On whether it was uncomfortable to write about class and privilege

I don't know that it was uncomfortable because it is so much a part of our culture right now, and it's something we're all thinking about and talking about and trying to do better with. So I feel like I couldn't have written anything else in this particular moment, really. You know, there's a real pushback in the book from Elisabeth's father-in-law, George, that, you know, this country has been emphasizing now for so long the individual, and if you've done something wrong, if you've lost your business — as George has in the book — you must have done something wrong. Where actually it's these systems of power and wealth that are very much stacked against the average person.

On Sam's tone-deafness

You know, Sam thinks she's doing what's best for her friends, but really she isn't. And you know, what she does, basically, is she has this realization as an undergrad, a very well-meaning undergrad, that the women who work in the dining hall and housekeeping and her college are not well-compensated. You know, in my research, I found that probably every year or two there's a big kerfuffle at an American university where a student kind of realizes, or a group of students realizes, you know, this isn't fair, and they will appeal to the college, and they will write letters and stage protests. But generally, nothing changes. And so I kind of was wondering, well, what does it feel like to be the worker in the dining hall who has to be someone's personal epiphany every three years.

On what she learned from writing Sam and Elisabeth

I think every novel is kind of a time capsule of where the writer was at that moment. And when I started writing this book, I, to be honest, had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I was living in New York City. And when you live in New York in your 20s, it's kind of like college, where everyone sort of seems the same. You know, everyone has three roommates. Everyone is hustling. And you reach your 30s and people start getting married, having kids. And suddenly it's like some poet you know is moving into a five million dollar brownstone in Park Slope. And you're like, wait a minute, how did that happen? You kind of begin to realize, oh, you know, some people really come from a lot of money, and some of us are still paying off our college loans and will be forever.

So I really had a kind of a chip on my shoulder about that for a while, I must admit, and when I started writing this book, I saw Elisabeth as sort of one of those people. You know, she's not a bad person, but she does sort of have a blind spot to her own wealth. However, I kind of realized what should have been obvious all along, which is that someone in the middle like Sam, or like me, to be honest, is afforded so much privilege just by having an education, even if the education costs you dearly, by being an American citizen and not having to worry and not having to be afraid, as the women in the kitchen are in this book, that if they speak up in their own defense, they or their family members might be retaliated against on that front.

This story was edited for radio by Elena Burnett and Courtney Dorning, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.