When Celia, Bree, April, and Sally are assigned to the same suite their freshman year at Smith College, the four girls couldn’t have less in common. By the time they graduate, the girls are inseparable. Together and apart, they experience the highs and lows of love, life, and everything else that comes with early adulthood.
Not so long ago, I read and loved Sullivan’s sophomore effort Maine. Based on this, and the fact that Commencement seemed to feature strong female protagonists firmly ensconced in the new adult world, I should’ve really loved Sullivan’s debut. At first, I did. The first half of the book was strong, compelling, and interesting. And then it lost me. The second half dragged, strained credulity, and ultimately ended up being really off-putting. Which is a shame, because Sullivan is a good writer and clearly has stories to tell.
The problem begins with the novel’s formula itself and only becomes worse from there. From the start, it is clear that Sullivan is nervous to stray from a narrative that is predictable. Although she peppers the narrative with interesting, intriguing tidbits of life at Smith College (casual lesbianism, disordered eating, strange/fun campus traditions), it’s not enough to distract from the rather bland narration of all four girls.
Each of the four main characters has chapters told from their (limited third person) perspectives, and while this is meant to illuminate them as characters and illustrate their differences, it only serves to fulfill stereotypes. April is the liberal, militant feminist; Sally is the girl grieving the loss of her mother; Bree is a Southern belle who becomes a conflicted lesbian; and Celia is the good Catholic girl who wants to be a writer (and is, surprisingly, the least interesting of all four). The girls never manage to break out of their casings, and while this works at the beginning of the novel, it goes on for so long that by the end readers will be sick of these characters.
A ridiculous, borderline-implausible plot-twist near the end of the middle third of the book brings the narrative to a weird place, and that’s where this novel really lost me. It’s supposed to serve as the catalyst for bringing the girls back together, but it never feels authentic and only serves to further point out the novel’s narrative flaws. While fans of Sullivan’s other novel still might enjoy some things here, I’d recommend sticking with her sophomore effort and waiting for whatever she has to offer next.
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf: 2009. Library copy.