Having gone to a women’s college (it wasn’t Smith; I was only waitlisted there), I grew up in the same world that the protagonists of COMMENCEMENT grow up in --- one in which the tales of that empowering, feminist, no-glass-ceiling academic world with no boys to distract you from your burgeoning brilliance was offered to me like a carrot on a stick to a horse. I assumed there was no other college choice for me, and, like these girls, I found that living that dream wasn't always as great as I had thought it was going to be.
The friendships the four main characters create are solid --- the kinds that last for years and years, if allowed to change and grow. Celia, Bree, Sally and April are sequestered off a small hallway as freshmen, and their differences in lifestyles and backgrounds do not keep them from becoming close friends. Through lesbian affairs (in which the participants are referred to as SLUGS: Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) and the requisite affairs with the resident English professor, through radical feminist meanderings and the first vestiges of careers, through boyfriends and new friends, weddings, babies and all those events that can make or break these friendships, they find their common goals and exercise a support system that literally saves one of their lives, if not all of them in some way.
Moving back and forth between the privileged manicured lawns of the Smith campus in Northampton and San Francisco, New York City, Charleston and many places in between, debut novelist J. Courtney Sullivan has a nice knack for building tension by relaying past experiences while exploring new ones with each of the characters. She writes some simply sexy scenes when investigating the physical passions of Bree, the surprise lesbian, whose relationship with her very-out girlfriend causes years of friction with her family, as well as the mere heterosexuality of the rest of the girls. April turns out to have had sexual violence in her past, Sally isn't sure that the man she married is better than the professor whom she courted in school, and Celia spends a lot of time having bad one-night stands with eligible Manhattan bachelors. Their careers take a backseat to their personal struggles, all except for April, who joins forces with an Andrea Dworkin-type documentary filmmaker who puts April's life truly in danger towards the end of the novel.
The core ideas of the feminist movement, whether it's first, second or third wave, are prevalent in COMMENCEMENT, and it is here that Sullivan finds her unique offering as a novelist --- those questions that are important to women everywhere (working while having kids vs. staying at home, the love of a man over the love of what you do, the importance of female friendships over the pursuits of other worldly pleasures) come to life in each decision that these young ladies make out in the real world. The protected feminist camaraderie of the Smith campus gives way to the constant interference of opposing points of view in the world at large and, finally, to the very controversial career choice of sex slavery in the United States.
Yes, seriously, this is the cause that April and her filmmaker boss take on firsthand in Atlanta, living among women who have no other choice for survival. It is a bold move and executed fairly well until the end when the entire enterprise falls apart because of suspect media-obsessed/look-at-me histrionics from Ronnie, April's boss. Until then, however, the push-and-pull of the women's affections and support for each other felt real.
I love the fact that the philosophical and political viewpoints of many revered feminists are quoted throughout the book. Sullivan assumes you know who she's talking about, and I appreciate greatly that she figured most of her readers could handle it. It's yet another vein of gold that wraps itself throughout the intricately interwoven lives of these very true-to-life characters. If I win the Mega Millions jackpot, I call first dibs on the movie rights! COMMENCEMENT is the beginning of something great.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 28, 2010