Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Commencement by J.Courtney Sullivan

In Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan, we meet Celia, Bree, April and Sally as they start their first year at Smith College. The young women are dorm mates and, although they come very different backgrounds, they develop a bond as much out of an affinity for each other as out of a need to connect now that they had left their homes and all that was familiar behind. The four women stay close after graduation and return to the Smith campus for Sally's wedding a few years after graduation. The story is told from each woman's point of view both during college and following college as they gather at Smith for the wedding. Their lives have moved on from when they were in college and the bonds formed during college are strained as the girls question whether they have truly made lifelong friends or if the magic of their shared college experience is what has held them together. 

Celia comes from a loving, Irish-Catholic family and is quick to make friends and draw others in; when she hears the beautiful Southern Belle, Bree, crying in the next dorm room she invites her in, offers her comfort (along with Oreos and Vodka- this IS college, after all) and gets to know her new hall mate. Bree has left her high school sweetheart at home and although she wants to pursue her dream of going to law school in Stanford, she wonders whether she should ditch her dreams and just go home and live a conventional life as fiance to her high school sweetheart. April is a staunch feminist, frequently on a soapbox about any number of issues and, on the surface seems to have little in common with the likes Celia and Bree. April's difficult childhood as the daughter of a single mother who frequently failed to protect her, however, has left her with a vulnerability that allows her to let the other girls in. Sally has experienced a great loss right before the start of school - the death of her mother to cancer - and her wealthy father's distance just further deepens the loss. She will need the three other girls to help her through her grief.

 My Thoughts
This book has all the making of chick lit or contemporary women's fiction but the writing elevates it to something literary. I found myself marking pages all through out the book both because I was impressed by the writing and the sentiments expressed resonated with me.

Sullivan so well captures that early adulthood (although I sometimes still feel this way!) insecurity about what life ahead holds for you and wanting to just be settled.

If things had been different, she would be in Carolyn's place right now.  She didn't want that sort of existence, but there was something so attractive about the security of feeling like you had stopped moving toward your life, and actually arrived.
As the women return to the Smith campus, they see college life through adult eyes with a certain amount of wistfulness.
In the main room, Smithies sat alone at carrels, serious as monks, their faces down in their used copies of Thackeray and Joan Didion. Sally had a ridiculous urge to walk over to them, smooth their hair, and tell them to savor every minute of this. But none of the girls even looked up. Sally was twenty-six, which in college student years was borderline elderly.
But my favorite quote is this one:
 The A train came quickly, as it always did at rush hour. Celia stepped into the crowded car and sucked in the burst of air conditioning. She closed her eyes as the train screeched to its next stop. Outwardly she was a very peaceful person. But the rage she felt daily on the New York City subway hinted at the possibility that the only difference between her and those raving-mad homeless people in the car was the she knew enough to keep quiet.
Commencement is an apt title for this novel - these young women, although mourning the end of their college years and having their best friends in their daily lives, are really at the start of their lives and recognizing that their friendships and what they have learned about themselves through those friendships will help them navigate what comes ahead. This novel has smart, well developed characters and is well written - I will definitely be reading more by this author.


  1. I love it when a book has me marking passages, etc. Love your review.

  2. Nice review, thanks for sharing it. I read Commencement when it first came out and loved it, but yours is the first review I've read.

  3. Wow, I can tell you really liked this book. I was one of the few people who didn't love Maine, by the same author, so I've hesitated to try this one. You've made me think I might need to reconsider.

  4. I read Maine, but only sort of liked it, so I didn't read Commencement. Your review is making rethink it. It has been sitting on my shelf for a long time.

  5. Great review! You've really made me want to read this, too. As I recall, I loved Maine until about halfway through and then thought the writing dropped off, so I never went back to read Commencement.

  6. That's my idea of a good book...a book that appeals to both those who read light fiction and those who read literary fiction.

  7. I actually really love it when a YA or New Adult or chick lit is elevated beyond the subject matter to arrive somewhere at or near literary. This one sounds very promising on that front.

  8. I am dying to read this book (bought it for my Kindle ages ago and just haven't gotten around to it yet). I love women's fiction, and I love books set around the college experience = total win for me.

  9. This is on every SUMMER book list...which often are glad you liked it!!

  10. I loved Maine, and this author's style. Adding this one to my wish list.

  11. I should point this out to my mom, who went to Smith in the 1950s. I'm reading a historical novel now about a girl who dreams of going to Smith, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.

  12. Thanks to J. Courtney Sullivan for giving me yet one more good reason to be proud of my Alma Mater - and April, Sally, Celia and Bree (and Lara!), keep up the good work! This is my first, and may be my LAST, Amazon review, I'm generally too busy for this kind of thing, but this book was worth it!

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