Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Commencement - J. Courtney Sullivan

I will be the first to proclaim I purposefully avoid stereotypical "chick lit."  It rarely is well written and the characters mold themselves into such irksome stereotypes.  Seriously, people, the world needs to stop writing books they think women will like and start writing books that are worth reading.  Ok, stepping off my miniature soapbox now.  My point, however, still stands that chick lit wastes your time most every time.  And yet here I sit, about to tell you all about the book I finished not fifteen minutes ago and I realize, with an increasingly sinking feeling, that it can be categorized as chick lit.  And....I liked it?

Don't jump to any conclusions.  I will not be setting aside my typical literary fare any time soon.  Although, I must admit, I have been on quite an entertainment binge lately.  This must and will change soon.  I promise.  I can't quite figure out what has gotten into me.  Maybe it's all due to the fact that I took a first crack at James Joyce's Ulysses and found myself hopelessly overwhelmed and simultaneously impressed.  I am going to be reading that thing for a year.  (Sidebar: please ignore how off topic I am today.  I am aching for the weekend and am having a seriously hard time focusing.  Think of it as charming.  This is how I am in real life all the time.  Yes, you should be praying for my husband.)

So, Commencement.  J. Courtney Sullivan's first novel explores friendship and feminism in the modern world.  Celia, Bree, Sally, and April meet as students at Smith College in Massachusetts.  From the first night of their freshman year, they are inseparable.  Perhaps I should hold this notion accountable for my inexplicable enjoyment of the book.  You see, I met my best friends my freshman year of college as well.  I resonant so strongly with the friendship between these four girls and the experiences they go through together.  Granted, both their collegiate and life experiences are drastically different than my own.

Each chapter of the book is told from the perspective of one member of the quartet.  The first part of the book centers around the girls preparing for Sally's wedding and the flashbacks to college life, which they had left several years previously.  Through these narratives, the reader gains a good understanding of their college experience with its highs and lows.  The second half of the book takes place nearly a year later, as various major life events bring the girls back together following a period of conflict.

Sullivan does not shy away from big issues.  The girls deal with things such as feminism, the values and evils of stereotypes, sexual identity and morality, family, career goals and achievements, and violence against women, among other things.  These heavy topics do bring an earnest tone to the book which I greatly appreciated.  They kept the novel from being just about some college "BFFs" and allowed it to flourish into a story of true friendship in the face of hardship and real life struggles.

Each of the four girls has a unique background and brings her own perspective to the lessons they learn and grow together.  I found Sullivan's characters believable, if slightly stereotypical.  April, the radical feminist, grows very little until the twist ending when she seems to re-evaluate life's priorities.  Celia could be called the most "normal" of them all, lacking much of a "type" beyond that.  I do not think Sullivan began the book from her viewpoint by accident; Celia is the most relatable.  Celia spends much of the book trying to figure out exactly where she fits in the world. Although she never says that, she seems to be floating; waiting for a man or a career opportunity to define her.  Sally, the motherless mother of the group, spends her college years engulfed in an affair with a poetry professor.  Eventually, though, she settles down and becomes a mother herself, internally fighting the idea of being so cliché the whole time.  I see much of myself in her: a strong, intelligent woman who must learn to reconcile her independent identity with the reality of marriage and (for future me) motherhood.  Bree arguably grows the most as a person and character throughout the book.  At the start, she is a Southern belle engaged to her high school sweetheart; at the end, she is finally coming to terms with and accepting her identity as a woman in a long-term lesbian relationship.  

The characters kept me engaged, though the story itself I found to be lacking at times.  Sullivan gave some wonderful moments of emotion, but her plot points seemed contrived to me.  I had guessed her big twist ending chapters before it was revealed and, for a book which dealt with so many heavy topics, I felt the "happily-ever-after" scene at the end to be misplaced.  Of course, everyone wants the characters to be all right in the end, but sometimes that is not the best literary decision.  That would be my strongest complaint for Sullivan.  Her mediocre plot could have been held together by the strong characters; but she had to give it that ending.

As I said, I really did enjoy this book, despite a few technical errors.  It reminds me vaguely of a grown-up version of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  It certainly can claim the status as some of the best chick lit I have read.  I would like to read Sullivan's sophomore novel, Maine, which is what led me to Commencement in the first place.   I thought they were a series.  They are not, but I still am glad I  discovered this book.  As I stated previously, I think having my own enduring college friendships gave me a connection to this work that I may not have had otherwise.  As always, I am thankful for my girls and that, like Sullivan's girls, we will be friends for life.

There is so much great literature about friendship.  What are some of your favorite literary friendships?  Anne and Diana?  Tom and Huck? Sherlock and Holmes?  Others? 

Pages: 320
Date Completed: April 4, 2013

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