Book View: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

Commencement was J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel – she has since gone on to write Maine, a book released last year to critical acclaim.  The good news seems to be she’s matured as a writer (although that’s hearsay as I haven’t read her sophomore work), the bad news being that I chose to read Commencement first.

We join Celia, Bree, Sally, and April as they begin their first year at Smith College (an all-girls liberal arts establishment – also Sullivan’s own alma mater) and then finish with the girls in their fourth/fifth year removed from school.  The girls struggle with identity and the balance of feminism.  And that’s pretty much the sum of things.

My problem with Commencement is not its writing.  Sullivan manages to write affectively and intelligently enough to put this novel just a step up from general ‘chick lit’.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing new or fresh here – in fact, I’ve read this novel two times before:  Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Beth Gutcheon’s The New Girls.  And once was more than enough unless you just really get your kicks on reading about the far-fetched collegiate bonds of women – or really,girls.

Also, does Smith actually resemble the school described in these pages?  Are all the women there either lesbians or ‘temporary’ lesbians? This seems to be a bit offensive to homosexual and heterosexual women alike.  Do townsfolk line up along the street to watch young women strut around campus in their underwear or sans clothes entirely?  I’ve been to college myself – lived in all-girl dorms – and nothing about this experience rang true for me.  Yes, I had lesbian friends – yes, I knew girls who ‘experimented’ in college, but steadfastly claimed their heterosexual allegiances – and yes, I lived with girls who liked the attention garnered by wearing next to nothing – but none of these aspects defined us as a group.  Am I completely off base here?

Moments of their college life were endearing and heartfelt – the loss of a mother, a broken engagement, a sexual assault, but once they graduated I couldn’t be bothered anymore.  The story leapt the bounds of plausibility and credulity is important when painting the lives within a character based story.  How are we to relate to these women, see ourselves in them, when they aren’t recognizable to the common reader?

And finally, Bree is meant to be from the south (Savannah, in particular) and part of the novel takes place in Atlanta (where I live).  Please do not judge our people by Sullivan’s portrayal.  Sullivan gets it wrong…just so wrong.  Sigh…

So not recommended and a huge downer after The Tiger’s Wife.  Has anyone read Maine?  I’ve heard it’s fantastic, but I’m wary after Commencement.

6 thoughts on “Book View: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

  1. As someone from the South (Alabama; hey, we’re sorta neighbors!) I can’t stand when writers (or anyone really) get it wrong about the South. Sometimes I wonder why they try… Great job on the review; very well written and tactful.

    • Thanks! And we’re definitely neighbors! The Southern thing is enough to completely turn me off an otherwise great book. Why the South always has to come off as some sort of back-country caricature is beyond me. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I went to Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college down the road from Smith. Smith was DEFINITELY known as the “lesbian school”, and townies would flood both of our schools to gawk at the ladies, no matter what we were or were not wearing. We learned early in our first year that EVERYONE and ANYONE would come to our parties because we were like local freaks and guys thought they could instantly get laid. People seem to think it’s incredibly strange that anyone would want to go to a single sex college. On one hand, I get it because I was totally turned off by that at first. However, having gone through it, it also is super frustrating when people say “YOU went to a GIRLS SCHOOL?!?! OMG-WHY-WOULD-YOU-EVER-DO-THAT-I-COULD-NEVER-BE-WITHOUT-THE-OPPOSITE-SEX-FOR-4-YEARS!!!!” There is definitely a sense of group-ness and “us vs. the co-ed world” that is inherent both while at school and for a while after graduating.

    Clearly, I have no idea how accurate or true her descriptions are, since I haven’t read the book. And if she got the South so wrong, that definitely ups the odds that she got the other parts wrong too. I’d be willing to put myself through the torture of reading this book just so I can see if she got it right or totally wrong.

    See you Saturday!! I’ll bring your other book back, I totally loved it!!

    • That is so interesting, Bianca. So maybe she wasn’t so far off the mark? Some ex-Smithies have said she got it all wrong and some say she’s spot on. I guess it just depends on individual perspective. Having gone to a co-ed school, my perspective is sort of skewed – but I can see how female sororities have these sorts of images and identities, especially at UGA.

      I thrive on female companionship (for example, the book club!) and would have loved the right women’s college. But I loved my giant, Southern, co-ed school just the same.

      I’m glad you liked The Piano Teacher! Can’t wait until tomorrow!!

  3. I thought this book was okay (mostly for its accurate portrayal of campus sexual assault–very similar to cases I see regularly in my legal practice), but I agree with your criticisms. I also thought the first half of the novel was far better than the second half, when it just fell apart. [I wrote a review of the book on my blog on June 24, 2012]

    • I’m glad someone else agrees with me. I wanted to like it so much, but just fell flat. I have had some people who went to similar schools explain that the book is pretty spot on.

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