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Commencement: A novel [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

J. Courtney Sullivan
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (197 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: Allison Winn Scotch Reviews Commencement

Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of Time of My Life and The Department of Lost & Found. Her third novel, The Happiest Days of My Life, will be published in 2010. Read her exclusive Amazon guest review of Commencement:

There is a curious thing that happens to nearly all of us in the haze of our post-college years, and that is this: we anticipate the prospect of becoming honest-to-God adults with both heady excitement and unfathomable dread. Dread because we know, wisely, that once we cross this threshold, we cannot go back; there is no sleeping in past eleven, no immature antics that can still be written off to childhood, no phoning our parents when the checkbook hits zero. Excitement because it is such a relief to evolve into something bigger than we were before, to embrace the world as ready, steady grown-ups. And J. Courtney Sullivan, via her debut novel, Commencement, explores these very complexities and growing pains of leaving behind our adolescences and surrendering to adulthood.

As I followed the intertwining paths of her four protagonists, each written honestly and tenderly, I couldn’t help but recall my own tangled path toward adulthood, the missteps, the right steps, the paths that have lead to a content life. And this is what the very best fiction does: it draws you in, resonating, asking you to reflect not just on the characters, but yourself. There is Celia, who can’t get unstuck from her rut; there is April, whose convictions threaten to overshadow the rest of her life; there is Bree, who faces a choice between her happiness and that of her family’s; and there is Sally, who is taping herself back together after the loss of her mother who held her family together.

The four of them, united as freshmen at Smith, slowly bond to form their own family, and like even the best of families, they find themselves both dependent and also fractured at various points in their lives. Sullivan does a fabulous job steering the quartet through realistic, life-changing events, events that so many of us have experienced in these growing years that usher us into our thirties. She never loses control of the plots, never lets the characters spill into something false or untrue. An unplanned pregnancy, a dead-end job, a relationship that might be worth salvaging, but who really knows how or if?

What I enjoyed most about Commencement, and there were many things—the smart writing, the laugh-out-loud dialogue, the ending that I truly couldn’t predict—was that it reminded me so much of how much I loved those years of my life. And how much I loved my friends who I have been fortunate enough to have along in my journey. I found myself rewinding through memories, sifting through old pictures, smiling as I was reading because Sullivan managed to transport me. She created indelible characters who became part of my life, and thus, allowed my life to become part of her book. This is also what the best fiction does, it pulls you along for the ride as if you were there, as if you were in between the pages, as if Sullivan knew my own story and made it hers. —Allison Winn Scotch

From Publishers Weekly

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.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Sullivan skillfully explores the complexity and depth of female friendships, including their dark side. Most critics (two of whom write for the same newspaper, of course) praised her richly drawn characters and her ability to give each woman a distinct, and believable, voice. Many favorably compared Commencement to Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep (**** Mar/Apr 2005) and Mary McCarthy's groundbreaking novel The Group (1963), which follows friends after their graduation from Vassar in 1933. Several critics did find April's character to be the least convincing, noting that her man-hating, hairy-legged, radical-activist persona verged on parody. Overall, however, critics hailed Commencement as an entertaining and intelligent story about modern friendship by a gifted young writer.

From Booklist

Introducing feminist chick lit in the form of first-time novelist Sullivan’s diverting parody of life at Smith College. When Sally, Bree, April, and Celia meet during first-year orientation, they quickly bond as they navigate the tricky rules of their new home: no “girl-on-girl” showers before 10 a.m.; no meat in the dining hall unless it has a vegan sidekick; no (well, some) clothes during the opening convocation ceremony. As best friends, all their glories and foibles come to light, including Sally’s lurid affair with an aging professor and Bree’s switch from straight to gay despite her family’s frowning disapproval. All postcollege transitions are also captured, from one-night stands to grad schools, first jobs and first homes, a wedding and a baby. When April, the radical in the group, begins to work with her idol, a “divisive” feminist known for extreme tactics, a secondary plot about human trafficking emerges, switching the mood from nostalgia to suspense. Sullivan’s debut crackles with intelligent observations about the inner sanctum of the all-women’s elite (yet scholarship-laden) college life. --Emily Cook

Review

Commencement is one of this year’s most inviting summer novels…. Entertaining… smart, discerning…. Ms. Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters who have fun, have fights and fall into intense love affairs.” —The New York Times

“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

About the Author

J. Courtney Sullivan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Men’s Vogue, the New York Observer, Tango, and in the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love. She is a graduate of Smith College, lives in Brooklyn, and works in the editorial department of The New York Times. Commencement is her first novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Sullivan: COMMENCEMENT

Part One

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 Donnelly(celiad@alumnae.smith.edu)



Celia

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&#...
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