J. Courtney Sullivan: Commencement (2009)

A sparkling debut novel: a tender story of friendship, a witty take on liberal arts colleges, and a fascinating portrait of the first generation of women who have all the opportunities in the world, but no clear idea about what to choose.

Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn’t have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother’s rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a “Riot: Don’t Diet” T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.

Celia, Bree, Sally and April are best friends even though they couldn’t be more different. During their time at Smith’s College they are inseparable. They help each other through minor and bigger disasters. Four years after graduating they meet again at Sally’s wedding. A stupid dispute drives them apart and they avoid each other for almost a year when April disappears.

Commencement is a novel of ideas. I don’t know why it has been called chick-lit. Because four young women are the protagonists? Quite unfair. It is as if this label proves the point the book wants to make. Even years after women’s lib began, we are still nowhere. A large part of Commencement is dedicated to topics like sex-trafficking, rape and child abuse. Despite the serious topics it tackles, it is an entertaining book with a lighthearted quality. But it is definitely a feminist novel in the vein of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and not chick-lit. I needed some time to get into it as each chapter is told by someone else. We hear that person’s story and get to know the others through her eyes. That wouldn’t be confusing, but they sound similar and their names are similar. Sullivan let’s her characters explore all the possibilities women have today. Getting married, staying single, having kids, having no kids, become lesbians, have various sexual partners, be monogamous. She looks into the mechanics of family and friendship. One girl’s parents are still in love, another has lost her mother, the third grew up with a single hippie mom and the fourth has a career mom. Regarding their professional choices Sullivan goes a similar way. They all chose something quite different. Sullivan who is a feminist deliberately chose to show every possible combination/choice. This could have gone wrong but it is well done. From page to page I liked those girls more. I wouldn’t go as far as comparing it to Mary Mc Carthy’s The Group but it is very good.  Ronnie, April’s boss, a militant feminist and audacious filmmaker is a very interesting character. Her ideals are such that she is blinded by them and becomes a true fanatic. A selfish zealot who does not shy away from endangering others for the cause. Another interesting aspect is that even though one girl loves another girl, she never considers herself to be a lesbian. The depiction of a women’s college is probably very realistic as Sullivan went to Smith herself. The friendship of those girls is very touching. It’s cute how they cuddle up in bed together, watch movies or chat.

If you are looking for an interesting, thought-provoking but still entertaining read, go for it. Especially when you are a feminist, interested in women’s topics or just love stories about friendship among women.

I mentioned The Group and The Women’s Room before which I loved both. Which books about female friendships and developpment did you like?