Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
Publication Date: June 16, 2009
Source: personal purchase
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
Together they experience the ecstatic highs and painful lows of early adulthood: Celia’s trust in men is demolished in one terrible evening, Bree falls in love with someone she could never bring home to her traditional family, Sally seeks solace in her English professor, and April realizes that, for the first time in her life, she has friends she can actually confide in.
When they reunite for Sally’s wedding four years after graduation, their friendships have changed, but they remain fiercely devoted to one another. Schooled in the ideals of feminism, they have to figure out how it applies to their real lives in matters of love, work, family, and sex. For Celia, Bree, and Sally, this means grappling with one-night stands, maiden names, and parental disapproval—along with occasional loneliness and heartbreak. But for April, whose activism has become her life’s work, it means something far more dangerous.
You may have noticed that this novel landed a spot on my 30 Before 35 list. Perhaps it seems like an odd choice, nestled in there with the likes of Ulysses and The Color Purple. However, I added Commencement because it's been on my TBR list for several years...and it's on my TBR because it tackles one of my favorite time periods: the college and post-college years.
Shortly after I graduated from UConn, I read I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. It really resonated with me, and still holds a spot on my favorites list. However, I soon realized that the number of books that focus on college/post-college life (without a primary focus on New-Adult-style, almost-erotica romance) is not high. Commencement is one of them, and I was happy to finally get around to it! (And what better time to read it, just after cap-and-gown season??)
This novel will certainly appeal more to a female audience, though I hesitate to attach the "chick lit" label. The book has its fair share of hookups, girly fights, etc., but they are worked into the plot with a higher level of seriousness than "chick lit"implies (at least by my definition). For example, the broad subject of "dating" is discussed in a whole host of contexts: how to balance your love life with your career after graduation; how to reconcile the fact that the love of your life happens to be a woman, which is a situation that your conservative family will never approve; and how to cope when what starts as a wonderful first date, ends in rape.
Yes, one of the best things about this book is that it takes primarily-female issues, and gives them the weight that they deserve, without the frills you may have come to expect from other women's fiction novels. I suppose this appeals to me because college was a significant time in my life. Not to sound like a nerd (never mind, I am a nerd), but it truly was the best of times AND the worst of times in many ways. I made a lot (A LOT) of mistakes, and had a lot of successes (thankfully more than the mistakes). Plus, I worked in higher education for 8 years afterwards, and saw other students going through a whole slew of social and emotional changes through that work. I know this is not the case for every college grad, but it gives you some idea why novels in this genre, written without a sense of frivolity, click so well with me.
The novel is broken into two parts, with the first part covering most of Sally, Bree, April, and Celia's 4 years at Smith College, as well as their reunion at Sally's wedding. The second half focuses on what happens to the women after they go their separate ways post-wedding. The first half was definitely stronger for me than the second. I feel like the plot took a rather far-fetched direction in the later chapters, and the ending is incredibly abrupt, given how well-developed the rest of the book is. That said, I suppose the second half is where most of the "action" happens, so I can't knock it too much, given that I never felt like I hit a slow point as I was reading.
Overall, Commencement is the perfect blend of head vs. heart. Sullivan confronts some important issues in the novel, and does so with passion and humor. If you have a recent female college grad in your life, this would be an excellent book to pass on!
Is there a certain time period that you love to read about in novels? Childhood? High school? College? Parenthood? What makes that stand out for you?