I am just about 20 years older than the women in this book, and I went to Mount Holyoke, not Smith, but I recognized the women in this book.
The book is imperfect. It seems to make the case that the life-changing aspects of an education at a place like Smith are all in the personal relationships and extra-curricular activities, and that's just not true. Academics are mentioned only in connection with a plot point that has nothing to do with education. It's not my experience (nor my observation, of my Mount Holyoke and Smith alum friends) that you can isolate any part of the experience like that. It's an education as well as a community.
Once the women graduate, again, the focus is solely on their emotional lives, except for April, and again, this is solely because it's needed for a plot point to work. On the whole, the separation of emotional life from the any grounding context weakens the book. (Example: At one point, Bree takes a long leave of absence from her job -- that she supposedly loves -- as an associate at a West Coast law firm, a job that was hard to come by, even after graduating magna from Smith and at the top of her Stanford Law class. Her response? "Oh well, I'll probably be fired.")
Now for what works about the book. The descriptions of the early days settling into Smith rang very true. The women seem realistic to me, even with their weaknesses. The friendships are complex and complicated, and even difficult, but believable.
Finally, and most important, the book is about choices. Good choices, bad choices, brave choices, careless choices, scared choices, and even the choices we make when we pretend not to choose. It's about accepting the consequences of those choices. It's about revising our understanding of the past in light of what we learn as we live our lives. And it's about the power of friendship and love in the face of the chaos we create with all our choices.
The writing is fluent, the main characters are likable and seem realistic, given what we know of where each came from. The book took me viscerally back to my undergraduate experience and to those years just after graduation. There's enough to like here that on the whole, I'd call this is very good book.
Since I'm always a sucker for novels about academic life, I devoured Commencement as soon as it arrived in the mail. This novel chronicles the complex lives and relationships of four young women (the Southern Bree, the radical April, the complicated Sally, and the dynamic Celia) who meet as freshmen at Smith. The chapters move seamlessly, and each character is beautifully intertwined within each chapter. This novel is more complex than most novels about women's friendships, and this has more "bite" than a typical summer read. I agree with some of the other reviews in that the novel has somewhat of an "identity" crisis, but I don't think that this is necessarily a negative quality. I enjoyed the look into the emotional lives of the characters, the clever dialogue, and the very realistic feel of the plot devices. Refreshingly, these characters do more than shop for designer clothes and sip on cosmos. This is a thinking girl's summer read.
The characters' post-collegiate lives serve as relevant commentary on the many choices that today's young women have. The plot twists and turns, and most of these twists are resolved at the end of the novel, which is satisfying. Don't let the social commentary fool you, though- This is still an enjoyable book. I think that readers who enjoy Curtis Sittenfeld or Kate Christensen will enjoy this one, as well.
"Commencement" is a beach book for 2009 for the post college crowd. I am probably not in the demographic that this book would appeal to but I applaud the author, J. Courtney Sullivan on her debut novel just the same.
The story seems benign at the onset as 4 women meet and become bonded in their first year at Smith College. But this tale takes serious twist and turns in the lives of it's 4 female characters weaving back and forth between their college years of discovering who they are and their post college years as the women they have become.
There are heavy topics used as platforms or springboards for this story and sometimes it does approach preachy. Prostitution, child abuse, lesbian relationships, date rape, just to name a few.
The author J. Courtney Sullivan, who is a graduate from Smith goes into detail about the unusual tendencies and rituals of attending an all women's college and I found this amusing and sometimes a little freaky not having attended an all female college myself. I have heard the rumors but this was way more than I needed to know--if it's really true!
Overall, it was an easy read with a small mystery towards the end. Was it a page turner? No. At the heart, it's a book about the bonds of female friendships in a fast paced world which barely leaves you time to take out the garbage, much less keep up with your most cherished relationships.
on July 17, 2009
As a graduate of a women's college and lover of commercial and literary women's fiction, I wanted to like this book but it just isn't any good. As many others have pointed out, none of the characters have their own character or voice and it feels like the author was torn between writing something commercial and writing a literary novel. As it stands, it is neither; it is just a muddled, dull novel about four boring characters that I couldn't for the life of me care about. I'm disappointed in the author, but more than anything I am disappointed in the New York Times, a supposed beacon of subjective reporting, for blatantly favoring a novel written by one of their own.
on November 26, 2011
I honestly still don't know what to rate this book. Because the fact is: I enjoyed it. I read it very quickly; I wanted to know what happened with the characters. On the one hand I think it is well written but i thought it was a major flaw that the characters did not have distinct voices, at all. Does this mean it was not well written and deserves less than four stars? I am not sure.
There are four main characters in this book and aside from one, April, I couldn't tell them apart. Each chapter is written from a "different" point of view, meaning one is narrated by Sally, the next by Celia, etc. But if I had just dropped into a chapter w/o knowing the "author" it would not be clear from the voice of the narrator. They do have individual stories, and characteristics, as ascribed and stated in the book. I knew if say, Sally, was the one doing the narrating that she was the one whose mother died (the first chapter, so not a spoiler) and who wanted to go to medical school and was a neat freak. But that's because the other characters say these things about her or she says them about herself. There is nothing in her narrative voice that differs at all from Celia or Bree. I think this is a flaw. Not just because I couldn't tell which character was speaking at any given time but because I would get them mixed up while reading. So, take from what what you will. Its not great literature, but neither is it a goofy, romantic novel. (Oddly enough, the author's subsequent work, Maine, did a better job of distinguishing its characters, and yet they were so unpleasant that I didn't like that book at ALL. This one is the better book, in my opinion.)
And then there is the matter of April's story. It's just ridiculous and though there is supposed to be a big reveal at the end, of sorts, I saw it coming immediately. It also means that one of the characters sort of goes silent for a while, which is not great for the novel. And the ending is abrupt and rather unsatisfying.
on July 17, 2009
I went to Smith, so it was vaguely amusing to be able to relate to all the references in the book. But I found the character development (which should have been the whole point) very amateur and unsatisfying (Celia and Sally remain confused in my mind), and the dialogue simple-minded and silly. Far from hilarious, as some have claimed. We sort of plod from one event to the next. Many lines were just plain trite--this author doesn't have much of a voice. She should, perhaps, stick with reporting. The fact that she works at the Times should not in any way have influenced their choice of books for summer reading, but reality supposes otherwise. A sad disappointment.
on November 1, 2010
I'm kind of still waiting for this book to truly begin. Now that I've read the entire thing, it's one of those experiences where I'll see the cover a year from now and tell my friend..."yeah, I think I've read that book. No memory of it, though."
The book talks about four friends: April, Bree, Celia, and Sally. Apparently Sally gets the short end of the stick, since she isn't in the ABC order as her other friends. Anyway, they're all chugging along towards Sally's wedding, and are 'remembering' their college years, even though they're only 26 or so.
Here's what I know. Bree is beautiful. Not sure why she is, but she is. She's also from Georgia, even though her friend Sally is the one who talks like she's Southern, instead, with words like 'sugarplum' thrown in now and then for effect. Bree is also the lesbian, even though she's really not. And she has really lame parents, who only accept her when she has decided not to be a lesbian. And then she's a lesbian again. (The only sex scene in the whole book involves Bree and her undecided sexuality). That's Bree.
Celia is the peacemaker. And she has great parents. She hooks up with lots of dudes, but never finds anyone fantastic. There's a mention of a rape in there...I think that's about two pages. The hooking up with dudes is described as basically that - she got together with a man. The end. Anyway, she wants to be a writer, but is too lazy to write. The end of Celia.
Sally is rich. She says 'sugarplum' a lot. She lost her Mom at the end of high school. She misses her Mom. She still misses her Mom. She misses her Mom again. And, she marries a happy guy. You basically get to know his name, the fact that her friends think she's dumb, and that he sings in the shower. More of the description (if you can call it that), is on her relationship with her (married) professor during college. She has a 7 bedroom house with nice furnishings. She gets really vulgar while she's pregnant. That's about it for Sally.
And April. She's the one we know least about. We know that she's a hard core feminist. And that she'll do anything for the cause. I had no idea what her sexuality was until more than halfway into the book, when it was thrown in there that she was, indeed, heterosexual, even though she had dreadlocks and hung out with the transgendered community. When the plot finally starts to peek through (3/4 of the way through the book), it involves April in a dangerous situation. Yawn. No one cares about April because we never know who she really is. She was never in love, or in like, or anything. All she did was basically fight for feminism. After slammed over the head with feminism, feminism, feminism, I got it. Feminism was really important in this book.
So, April's whole being revolves around the cause. And that's it for April, as well.
This is a great example of the phrase - telling, not showing. I felt that the whole story was told to us, instead of shown to us - and I had no connection with the story or the characters. There was no moment where I wanted to actually know what happened to these people. I was more curious about whether or not the book would begin, and where...so I kept reading. Now that I can't get that time back, I thought I may as well write about it. The stuff about Smith having so many radical women attending...I had never heard of. So, I guess if it's true, I can say that I learned something. (Note to self: Do not send daughter to Smith unless she's really earthy and crunchy).
I gave this book two stars because there was a quote in there somewhere about Celia's mom that I liked. Something about the feminist movement fighting for women to work, and then it ultimately turning out to be a horrible thing for married women, who still do 90% of the work at home as well. Now, that I can relate to.
on August 4, 2009
I was hesitant to read this novel, but I couldn't help reading a book written not just about my alma mater, but about four fictional women who graduated in my class. This book turned out to be a romp through the lives of four shallow, entitled, judgmental, drunken caricatures of people about whom I could not bring myself to care. It portrays many of the things I found precious about my Smith experience as ridiculous and makes Smithies look like self-centered, catty children who paid upwards of $30k/year (back then) just to socialize and go to Amherst College parties to pick up boys. That was certainly not what my Smith experience looked like. Yes, the women I met there changed my life and were an integral part of my Smith experience, but Sullivan seems to completely overlook the impact the classes, lectures, and other academic experiences have on college students' growth.
One of the most valuable things I learned from Smith College was to look at things from a broader perspective, to step outside myself and to consider the overarching social and political issues that inform situations before deciding on my own opinions of things. The women in this book clearly never learned that lesson. In fact, it's hard for me to believe Sullivan attended the same Smith College I did.
At the end of the book, Sullivan tries to turn it into an Issue Novel, but fails miserably. This might work better if she'd set up more substantial characters, or if this section of the book wasn't so out of place with the rest of the storylines. Sullivan attempts to use the Issue to generate suspense, but the plot is so transparent that it's clear what's coming from a mile away.
In short, Commencement's characters are flat and ridiculous and obsessed with trivial concerns, unable to look outside of themselves. They appear to never think about the implications of their decisions, either on others or on their own futures.
My recommendation? Spare yourself and pass this one by.
on September 7, 2009
This is one of the most pointless books I have ever read. The book jumps all over the place in time. I had a hard time understanding where some of it was taking place. The author would be talking about their "first year" and then all of a sudden they are graduating and then back to sophomore year. It needed some kind of cohesive timeline. The author gave a lot of detail about the characters but switched back and forth so much that I had no idea who was who. And there were all these issues in the book - too many to keep track of what had happened to who. This book may have been better with a good editor.
on August 31, 2009
Dianne Hunter's Review
Four hall-mates in the Smith College class of 2002 transition from attitudes they brought from their pre-college days in Chicago, Boston, Savannah. Sexual initiations, feminisms, ethnicities, family ties, class differences, body-images, and the legacy of the 1960s & 1970s bear on the survival of their friendship past the milestones of graduation, marriage, and childbirth as their lives disperse among the paths of graduate school, life in California, life in NYC, middle class comforts in Cambridge, MA, and a struggle against sex-trafficking in Atlanta. The book coheres around different kinds of mothering: a dead mother, Smith College as an Alma Mater, and radical feminism + 1960s hippiedom as rackets exploiting youthful idealism. This (Knopf, 2009) novel, which reads as though it were aimed at becoming a film script, is not nearly as good as its publicity blitz claims. Some problems: the novel deploys stereotypes; its representations are crude; it neglects Smith College classrooms as places of learning.