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Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

picture of book cover

Commencement Commencement (Vintage Contemporaries) is an enjoyable jaunt through life in a women’s college and the years afterwards, until it goes completely off the rails.
But that shouldn’t negate Part One, which finds Brea, April, Sally and Celia forming at fist a tentative and then all-consuming friendship their freshman year at Smith. Sullivan is at her best when explaining the alternative universe of an elite women’s college. “Like most things at Smith, the dining hall experience was extreme. Either you ate everything in sight, or you at nothing,” she writes, and includes fascinating snapshots of Smith events like Celebration of the Sisterhood and running around naked on various occasions. Sometiimes it’s funny, such as when Celia muses that “she had a theory that women’s college grads were like people who had lived through the Depression ‑ even though they now had plenty of food, they still hoarded every last scrap. When she met a guy, any guy, she was too willing to accept his flaws because who knew where her next meal was coming from? But it was one thing to date losers, and another thing entirely to marry one.”
There are times when the blunt, if not terribly unique, assessment from a character rings true, such as when mid-20s Celia, an aspiring author who works at a publishing house, complains “how could you find the time and inspiration to sit down and write when you spend your days reading other people’s crap, sending out rejection letter after rejection letter?"
As the girls face rejection, deal with their pasts and grapple with becoming adults,  it’s intriguing to read what is essentially a basic coming-of-age tale not a lot different than the themes in most women’s fiction, but this time told through the lens of a women’s college and feminism. There’s a refreshing undertone through most of the story, especially when the ladies drop the veil of all-for-one and let loose with judgements over choices around marriage, lesbianism and careers. Female friendships are rarely depicted with the complexity they deserve, which in itself would make Commencement worthy of reading. What’s especially of note is the story of Bree,  who falls in love with a fellow Smith student and finds herself having to choose between her traditional Southern family and the woman she wants to be with.
There’s a minor problem in Irish-Catholic Celia’s arc in that it’s fairly clear that she drinks to excess and makes bad choices in men. (And buys (BUYS!) a Maltese at one point, whereas I would have had the character adopt a pit bull.) The biggest problem lies in the story of April, who is blinded by the zeal of mentor Ronnie and finds herself in increasingly dangerous circumstances in the name of pursuing rights for women.  Even for those of us who don’t mind April’s long feminist rants – and there will be lots of female readers who don’t find it to be their cup of tea – Sullivan seems the least comfortable in the chapters told through April’s point of view. When tragedy hits, the story gets boxed into a corner and ends, if not implausibly, at least in a way that feels untrue to the character.  It’s not dissimilar to what happened in Admission, where a story climaxed in a way that you thought, “oh for Pete’s sake.”
If you have a connection to Smith, I would recommend reading Commencement. Others can skip it, but for a debut novel it’s impressive. I look forward to reading Sullivan's other work.