The New York Times
Commencementby J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan’s celebrated debut novel is a sparkling tale of friendship 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.… See more details below
J. Courtney Sullivan’s celebrated debut novel is a sparkling tale of friendship 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 a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, preppy and obsessively neat, 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. Written with radiant style and a wicked sense of humor, Commencement follows these unlikely friends through college and the years beyond, brilliantly capturing the complicated landscape facing young women today.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
It isn't quite love at first sight when Celia, Sally, Bree and April meet as first-year hall mates at Smith College in the late 1990s. Sally, whose mother has just died, is too steeped in grief to think about making new friends, and April's radical politics rub against Celia and Bree's more conventional leanings. But as the girls try out their first days of independence together, the group forms an intense bond that grows stronger throughout their college years and is put to the test after graduation. Even as the young women try to support each other through the trials of their early twenties, various milestones-Sally's engagement, Bree's anomalous girlfriend, April's activist career-only seem to breed disagreement. Things come to a head the night before Sally's wedding, when an argument leaves the friends seething and silent; but before long, the women begin to suspect that life without one another might be harder than they thought. Sullivan's novel quickly endears the reader to her cast, though the book never achieves the heft Sullivan seems to be striving for. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
“The author manages to find that sweet spot between Serious Literature and chick lit. Commencement is a beach book for smart women–and the girls they once were.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Brave…. Sullivan… excels at close-up portraits…. Commencement also fulfills its ambition to offer a witty take on the stereotypes of women’s colleges, much as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep did with elite boarding schools…. Sullivan’s gifts are substantial.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Wickedly sharp.... Ms. Sullivan’s voice is funny and smart.... A fun, fresh ... insightful read.” —The New York Observer
Refreshingly naturalistic. . . . Commencement is much more than a novel about academia or young women. It’s a thoughtful, engrossing study in lives transformed and relationships realigned, full of details and dilemmas that speak to a broad audience.” –The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Four friends bond at Smith College and stumble toward adulthood in Sullivan’s intelligent, diverting debut.” –People
“This story about four Smith College students and the paths they follow post-graduation celebrates friendship and explores modern-day feminism. At the same time, it’s just a really devourable read–think a 2009 version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.” –Cookie magazine
“Sullivan tells an involving story of four students from different backgrounds who share quarters at Smith College. It sounds trite, but it isn’t. The women change the course of their lives of the years in dramatic ways. . . . Chick lit with depth and engagement.” –New York Daily News
“Convincing and unique.”–Elle (Winner of the Elle Readers Prize)
“Sullivan writes fiction you might expect from a journalist: Her clean, precise prose stays carefully neutral and balanced, even as she shifts points of view from chapter to chapter… skillfully blending their stories…. Their struggles, reactions and decisions feel real. How they pull through–and pull together–proves inspiring.” —Philadelphia City Paper
“As [Commencement] takes the women from their first shaky steps toward independence through the ups and downs of their 20s, you'll relive–and celebrate–the stomach-dropping moments of the best friend-relationship roller-coaster.” —Redbook
“I was deeply engaged by the characters and their complexity.... One of the differences between fiction and literature is that the latter thrives on layers of ambiguity and ambivalence, and in Commencement I see the launch of a literary career.” —Nicholas Kristof, nytimes.com
“Take Mary McCarthy's The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.” –Gloria Steinem
“Commencement is an accomplished, compulsively readable novel about the intricate bonds of female friendship. A literary page-turner at once entertaining and moving.” –Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White
“Sullivan's debut novel, Commencement, works like a backstage pass to a world I barely knew existed–the elite contemporary women's college, the world of Smithies–with their rampant anagrams (including my favorite, S.L.U.G., Smith Lesbian Until Graduation), fluid and complex sexuality, eccentric traditions, arch politics, and, most of all, incredibly deep and enduring friendships. As a foreigner in this foreign land, I felt supremely lucky to have Sullivan as my trustworthy guide. Her portrait of these four Smithies is honest, urgent, and heartfelt.” –Bridget Asher, author of My Husband's Sweethearts
“Sullivan writes with a verve and ambition that makes the novel's four friends into real women, besieged–as real women are–by confusion, joy, and compromise. I enjoyed every page of Commencement.” –Martha Moody, author of Best Friends and The Office of Desire
“In the spirit of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Mary McCarthy's The Group, J. Courtney Sullivan delivers an engrossing, multi-layered tale of women, friendship, and the fascinating institution of higher education that shapes and influences them. Commencement is the can't-put-it-down novel that you will recommend to your best friends this summer.” –Elin Hilderbrand, author of Barefoot
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Read an Excerpt
SMITH ALUMNAE QUARTERLY
Spring 2006 Class Notes
CLASS OF ’02
Robin Hughes graduates from Northwestern this May with a master’s in public health. She lives in Chicago with fellow Hopkins House alum Gretchen (Gretch) Anderson . . . Natalie Goldberg (Emerson House) and her partner Gina Black (class of ’99) have finally realized their dream of moving to Finland and opening a karaoke bar! So far, they say, Emersonians Emma Bramley-Hawke and Joy Watkins have already stopped in for several verses of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. . . After four years of working in a health clinic in her native Malaysia, Jia-Yi Moa has been accepted to NYU Medical School! . . . And now, news from my own darling group of girls: Sally Werner, who works as a researcher in a medical lab at Harvard, is getting married (on the Smith campus!) this May to longtime boyfriend Jake Brown. Fellow King House alums Bree Miller (Stanford Law ’05), April Adams (intrepid research assistant for Women in Peril, Inc.), and yours truly will be serving as bridesmaids. Look out for the embarrassing drunken photos in the next issue. Until then, happy spring to all and keep sending me those updates.
Your class secretary,
Celia woke with a gasp.
Her head was throbbing, her throat was dry, and it was already nine o’clock. She was late for Sally’s wedding or, at least, for the bus that would take her there. She silently cursed herself for going out the night before. What the hell kind of a bridesmaid showed up late to the wedding of a dear friend, and hungover at that?
Sun streamed through the windows of her little alcove studio. From her spot in bed, Celia could see two beer bottles and an open bag of tortilla chips on the coffee table by the couch, and, oh Jesus, there was a condom wrapper on the floor. Well then, that answered that.
The guy lying next to her was named either Brian or Ryan; that much she remembered. Everything else was a bit of a blur. She vaguely recollected kissing him on the front stoop of her building, fumbling for the keys, his hand already moving up her leg and under her skirt. She did not recall having sex or, for that matter, eating tortilla chips.
She was lucky not to have been chopped up into little bits. Her sober self needed to somehow get the message to her drunk self that it was entirely unadvisable to bring strange men home. You saw it in the papers all the time—They met at a party, he asked her to go for a stroll, two days later the police found her torso in a dumpster in Queens. She wished that casual sex wasn’t so intimately connected to the possibility of being murdered, but there you had it.
Celia leaned toward him now and kissed his cheek, trying to affect an air of calm.
“I’ve got to leave soon,” she said softly. “Do you want to hop in the shower?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have to go into the office today,” he said. “Got a golf date with some clients this afternoon. Mind if I sleep in?”
“Umm, no,” she said. “That’s fine.”
Celia looked him over. Blond hair, perfect skin, chiseled arms, dimples. He was cute, suspiciously cute. Too attractive for his own good, as her mother would say.
Before she left, she kissed him again. “The door will lock automatically behind you. And there’s coffee on the counter if you want it.”
“Thanks,” he said. “So I’ll call you?”
“Good. Well, see you later, then.”
From his tone, she figured the odds of his actually calling were about fifty-fifty, not bad for a drunken hookup.
Celia headed toward the subway. Was it weird that he had asked to stay in her apartment? Should she have demanded that he leave with her? He looked clean-cut, and he said he worked in finance. He didn’t seem like the type who would go home with a girl just to rob her, but what did she really know about him anyway? Celia was twenty-six years old. Now into what she considered her late twenties, she had begun compiling a mental inventory of men she should not sleep with. As she stepped onto the A train, she added Guys who might be suspected of stealing my belongings to the list.
Twenty minutes later, she was sprinting through Port Authority, praying for the bus to be five minutes late. Just five extra minutes, that was all she needed.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women,” she muttered. “Come on, come on.”
It was a habit of hers, a remnant of a time when she actually believed in God and would say a Hail Mary whenever she was in trouble. Celia realized now that what she had once thought of as prayers were in fact just wishes. She didn’t expect the Virgin to actually do anything—even if she did exist, she probably wouldn’t be in the business of controlling buses running express from Manhattan to Northampton, Mass. All the same, the familiar words calmed Celia down. She tried to use them sparingly so as not to offend the Mother of God, a woman she didn’t believe in, but even so.
Her mother revered the Virgin Mary, saying the rosary in her car on the way to work each morning, keeping a statue of the Madonna in the front garden for years, until a Presbyterian family moved in across the street (not wanting to offend them, she dug up the statue and put it out back). She believed that Mary had all the power, that Jesus was secondary to her, because he had come from her womb. Celia often marveled at how her mother was perhaps the only person on earth to perceive Catholicism as matriarchal.
She reached the gate just as the bus driver was collecting the last of the tickets and closing the door.
“Wait!” she shouted. “Wait! Please!”
The driver looked up in sleepy-eyed surprise. She hoped he wasn’t as hungover as she was.
“Please! I have to get on that bus!” she said.
“Hurry up, then,” he said. “There’s one seat left.”
It wasn’t like Celia to draw attention to herself in public, but the thought of Sally’s disappointment if she had to call and say she was running late was just too much to bear. Besides, Celia had been looking forward to this weekend for months. She did not want to miss a moment with the girls.
She pushed through the aisle, past mothers bouncing crying babies on their laps, teenagers with their headphones blaring, and twenty-somethings having loud cell phone conversations about insanely private matters. Bringing new meaning to hell on wheels, that ought to be Greyhound’s slogan. She was desperate for more coffee and as much Advil as she could take without killing herself.
Despite the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride that lay ahead, Celia smiled. Soon she would be with them again—Sally, impeccable and impulsive, a twenty-five-year-old millionaire in a thrift-store wedding gown; April, brave and opinionated, with that sometimes reckless air that worried them all; and Bree, beautiful and bright eyed and mired in a doomed love affair—she was still Celia’s favorite, despite all the changes and distance between them.
Celia sat down beside a pimply teenager reading a comic book. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep.
Eight years earlier, on Orientation Day, Celia wept in the backseat of her father’s Lincoln Town Car all the way out to Smith. The family had to pull over in a Taco Bell parking lot so she could get herself together before meeting her housemates. By the time she arrived at the front door of Franklin King House, she was fixed with a big fake smile and half a tube of her sister’s Maybelline concealer. (Celia had always prided herself on being a girl who didn’t wear makeup, but she realized at that moment that she did in fact apply powder and mascara and eye shadow most mornings, she just never bought any of it herself.) She held back tears for hours as they carried boxes upstairs and mingled with other new students and their families on the lawn of the science quad. Then, at last, it was time for the family to go, and there was an embarrassing, agonizing moment in which the four of them—Celia, Violet, and their parents—stood in a circle and embraced, everyone crying except for Violet, who was fifteen and eager to get back home in time to see her boyfriend’s ska band play at the Knights of Columbus Hall. (The band was called For Christ’s Sake, and Celia’s mother thought they were a Christian rock group. She didn’t know that the last word was pronounced with an emphasis on the e, like the Japanese wine.)
After they left, Celia cried until she felt as hollow as a jack-o’-lantern. College had snuck up on her, and unlike so many of her friends, who had been dying to leave home, Celia liked her life just fine as it was. She couldn’t imagine going to sleep at night without first creeping into her parents’ room, curling up with the dogs at the foot of their bed as her father watched Letterman and her mother read some trashy novel. She couldn’t picture herself sharing a bathroom with anyone but Violet—you couldn’t yell at a dorm mate for using up all the hot water the way you could your sister. You couldn’t squeeze your blackheads in front of the mirror, wrapped in a towel and dripping wet from a shower while she sat on the edge of the tub and clipped her toenails.
At Smith, Celia worried that she would never again feel truly comfortable.
Along with a month’s worth of groceries for a family of five, her mother had given her a prayer card with a picture of the Virgin printed on the front and her great-grandmother’s golden wall cross.
“You know this isn’t a convent, right?” her father teased his wife.
After a lifetime of Catholic school, Celia considered herself an atheist, but she was still terrified to throw these things in the trash—it seemed like a surefire way to get struck by lightning. Instead, she shoved them in the back of her top drawer and covered them over with underwear and socks.
Celia pulled two bottles of vodka from her suitcase, where they lay wrapped in a Snoopy bath towel that she’d had since she was eight. As she placed them in her mini-fridge, she realized with some delight that she didn’t have to hide them from anyone.
She unpacked the rest of her clothes and filled the closet. The room was small, with plain white wallpaper, a single bed, an oak dresser, a nightstand, and a dingy little mirror with a faded Clinton/Gore ’96 sticker stuck to the bottom. Having seen friends’ rooms at Holy Cross and BC, Celia knew that this one was cozy and clean by comparison. Smith had free cable TV in every room, and private phones for each student, and huge windows with thick sills you could sit on, reading for hours. Her parents were going into crazy debt so she could be here. (“We’ll be paying the loans off until your kids are in college,” her father had said the previous spring, in one final attempt to make her go to a state school.) She knew she ought to feel grateful. Still, Celia got a little hysterical, imagining living the next four years between these walls.
She tried to go as long as she could without calling her mother. She lasted three hours.
“I started to drive on the way back here so your father could rest his eyes,” her mother said. “I didn’t even make it to exit eighteen before I was crying so hard that I had to pull over and switch seats with Daddy.”
Celia laughed. “I miss you guys so much already.”
Just then, a girl appeared outside the open door to her room. She looked like a middle-aged man, with a huge beer gut hanging over her khakis and a small brown stain on her white T-shirt. Her hair was slicked back, and she held a clipboard in her hand.
Celia hoped she hadn’t heard her blubbering away to her mother like a five-year-old.
“I gotta go,” she said into the phone.
“Celia Donnelly?” the girl said, looking down at her list. Her voice was deep and gravelly. “Pleased to meet you. I’m your HP—that’s house president—Jenna the Monster Truck Collins. First-year meeting in the living room in five.”
Downstairs in the living room a few minutes later, they sat in a circle on the floor, and Celia took stock of the other new girls. There were fifteen of them in all, and they mostly looked like the girls she’d known in high school. They wore jeans or cotton sundresses; they had touches of lip gloss and mascara on their faces, and smooth, long hair. Then there were the girls leading the meeting: Jenna the Monster Truck; two other seniors about her size, both named Lisa, both with cropped boy haircuts; and a junior named Becky, who looked like she might be positively gorgeous if only she gave a damn about her appearance. Her shoulder-length hair lay flat, clumped with grease, and her face was so shiny that, for the first time ever, Celia envisioned herself taking a little witch hazel to a stranger’s skin. With the exception of Jenna, they all wore flannel pajamas.
Is this what she and the others would become? Celia wondered. Did attending a women’s college make you relinquish all grooming products and embrace carbohydrates like you only had a week left to live? (Later she would learn that if you weren’t careful, the answers to these questions were yes and yes. After one semester, about a quarter of the girls would be going crazy, filling out transfer applications to Wesleyan or Swarthmore or any coed school that would take them midway through the year.)
From the Hardcover edition.
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