Making Friends in the Suburbs

When you live in the city, making new friends is as easy as opening the door. But in the burbs...

Book clubs and making friends in the suburbs

Photograph by Clint Blowers. Styling by Melanie Francis

A year or so after my husband and I moved from 13th and Pine to the quaint South Jersey hamlet where we planned to start a family, I realized that in order to be a happy and fulfilled suburban grown-up, I needed one thing I didn’t have: a book club.

It was odd to yearn for a book club. It was particularly odd since I had never in my life actually been in a book club, though I knew people who were who frequently made offhand remarks like “I went to happy hour with Shannon from book club,” or “When I had a baby, my book club brought dinners for a month!” or “If it weren’t for book club, I’d probably murder my husband in his sleep.” So it was most definitely a yearning, which I felt most intensely when my as-yet-unmurdered husband and I sat having dinner at P.J. Whelihan’s, as we often did, and saw groups of other couples our age laughing and buying rounds as we picked through our Loaded House Nachos, alone. Inevitably, on the car ride home I would announce, “I need a book club.”

“I know, Vicki,” Thad would reply, patting my thigh. “I know.”

What I was really saying, of course, was “I need friends.” But that phrase was just too pathetic to utter aloud, even to my husband, so I substituted “book club” as code. Like, “I get by with a little help from my ‘book club.’” Like, “All you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got a ‘book club.’”

It was a weird place to be. I’d never been so friendless. Sure, I still had college friends I texted almost every day; my oldest pals were girls I met in fifth grade. I met my current besties at my first two “real” jobs. Trouble was, none of my old friends lived anywhere near us. While I did have three very close friends I’d made after I moved to Philly in 2001, they lived in the city, and we lived way over the river in South Jersey, which to them was about as enticing to visit as Novosibirsk, Russia.

On top of that, Thad and I were transplants. Our nearest family was 200 miles away. Being a childless mid-30s transplant wasn’t so unusual in Center City, but out in the ’burbs? It felt like everyone who lived in our town not only grew up here, but still hung out with the kids they shared a limo with to prom. They didn’t need “new” friends. I felt like we weren’t just back in high school—we were that odd foreign exchange student from Finland that people gladly lent their biology notes to but didn’t remember when hosting that kegger at the beach.

I tried lots of activities to meet people, activities that fulfilled specific conditions that actual sociological research studies had actually found to be fundamental to making close friends—being nearby, taking place in a non-threatening environment, involving frequent interactions. I did a play. I took a sewing class. I became a yoga teacher. I had a baby. I dragged my husband and said baby to a Unitarian church. I told a friend who had a book club how much I wanted to be in her book club. I told her again. I had another baby. And then another. While I certainly met nice people being “Miss Join-a-Lot,” nothing clicked in a “Let’s rent a Shore house together next summer” kind of way.

So I got aggressive. Sometime between kids two and three, I made invitations to a Halloween party at our house. I rolled them into cute little scrolls, tied them with cloth ribbon, and walked up and down my street, putting one in every mailbox of every house that had a swing set or a trampoline or other form of kid-evidence. And it worked: Not only did just about everyone come, but we shared all of our numbers and email addresses and vowed to get our “Unofficial Melrose Avenue Parent Association” (in my utter glee at having neighborhood guests in my home, I named us in order to make it all real) together again soon. I was convinced—absolutely 100 percent certain—that Thad and I would be invited to a play date/potluck/cocktail party within the month and be “Friendless in Westmont” no more. We waited and waited—for four years.

Thad and I tried to laugh about it. We joked that apparently our beer wasn’t cold enough. And that my naming of the group must have been “too soon.” It took a long time, a few more lonely dinners at P.J.’s, and zero book club invitations for me to finally ask Thad, for real: “Is there something wrong with us?”