About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

#21 - Commencement

Got my groove back, in terms of quantity if not quality. Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is just the kind of touchy-feely, girl book I enjoy, even if I feel vaguely guilty about it sometimes. (Once a Catholic....)

Summary (from Library Journal Review): "Graduating from college and moving into the 'real world' is a rite of passage for many people. For Celia, Bree, April, and Sally, it's bittersweet to leave the confines of Smith College, where they all met. As first years, they bonded not only because they were new but because they lived together in the worst rooms in King House, third-floor maids' quarters. Celia's a Catholic schoolgirl, April an angry young feminist, and Bree the Southern belle who is already engaged, while Sally has just lost her mother to cancer. Despite these differences, they become best friends, and what they share at Smith carries them into their later lives-even as they go on to very different realities. Sullivan's first novel is a coming-of-age tale of young women in contemporary society where some of the battles of the women's movement have been won-but not all. The characters still face issues about sexuality, equality, and cultural expectations, and Sullivan's intriguing treatment partly refreshes the novel's familiar concept. For fans of contemporary women's fiction."

Fans of contemporary women's fiction. A dressed-up translation of "chick lit," perhaps, but yeah, I guess that's me. The story opens a few years after graduation, as the four former dorm-mates reconvene at Smith for Sally's wedding. As we'd expect, we then move backward in each character's memory to their freshman-year meeting and their college years together, and eventually forward, to how their lives continue to unfold after the wedding. Celia comes to Smith from a large, close-knit Massachusetts Irish-Catholic family, and finds herself gun-shy around men after a blind date with a Dartmouth guy goes horribly wrong. Homecoming queen Bree, despite a long-distance fiance, finds herself falling suddenly, passionately in love with Lara, who she can never bring home to her traditional Southern family. Sally is the consummate poor little rich girl, with a dead mother and remote father, whose impeccable study habits lead (albeit indirectly) to an affair with a brooding-but-romantic poetry professor. And then there's April, penniless daughter of a neo-hippie/ radical single mom, who's never really had friends or even a childhood before now.

Commencement isn't perfect. Of the four main characters' story lines, only Bree's really seemed gripping. Celia's and Sally's were both familiar and believable, but underdeveloped, and April's just seemed a bit preposterous. Sullivan also drops a few references to Celia's heavy drinking, but never goes anywhere with it, which left me wishing she'd either followed the thread through or just not shown us the gun in the first place.

To its credit, though, the novel does do a first-rate job at capturing the intense, intoxicating nature of college friendships. Says New York Times reviewer Maria Russo,
"[T]he real power of a women’s college has little to do with what goes on in the classroom. This affable first novel about four friends who bond during their first week at Smith unfolds mainly in dorm rooms, dining halls, the Quad — anywhere the girls can freely inhabit the passion that is the central fact of their college years and that stays charged-up into their 20s. At Smith, the days and nights are filled with lounging, eating, crying and getting drunk, all while the women constantly analyze one another’s families and romantic partners. Studying is occasionally in the mix. ...

"Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world. She’s brave to characterize the modern female condition as equally bewildering and empowering: 'They were the first generation of women,' one character notes, 'whose struggle with choice had nothing to do with getting it and everything to do with having too much of it — there were so many options that it felt impossible and exhausting to pick the right ones.' The novel’s remedy for that predicament — friendships forged at a college that’s 'entirely and unabashedly feminine' — is as ambiguity-free as an issue of an alumni magazine. The girls’ bond occasionally turns claustrophobic and judgmental, and at one point it bursts apart altogether, but it endures. 'In each of her friends, her Smith College self would always live on,' Sullivan has a character reflect toward the end, when the girls are in their late 20s. 'Maybe that was why they were all still so important to one another, even though so much had changed.'
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I enjoyed Commencement, particularly as a debut novel. It's not brilliant or life-changing, but it was a good story.

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