WHAT the babysitter sees : ''Friends and Strangers,'' by J. Courtney Sullivan 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 spot-on minutiae, her honest rendering of what happens behind closed doors.

One of the great pleasures of reading fiction - always but especially lately, when isolation so limits our voyeuristic opportunities in the 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, began in the middle of the night, in the middle of the suburbs -

''Nobody up at this hour because mothers and insomniacs'' - from which promising vantage point we're given the 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 the 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 lures to babysit her infant son. ''Sam was traditional,'' Elisabeth muses at one point.

The novel branches off in myriad directions, some more fruitful than the 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/inspiring 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 am not overly interest in scripted films anymore''].

The World Students Society thanks review author, Claire Lombardo.


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