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Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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0

A-CommencementJ. Courtney Sullivan is the author of Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man. Her writing has also appeared in a variety of publications, including In Style, Elle, and Glamour. A graduate of Smith College, Sullivan works in the editorial department at the New York Times.

The Story: A dorm assignment throws together four very different women during their freshman year at Smith College. Sally, grieving over the recent loss of her mother, finds comfort in the arms of an English professor. Celia, an Irish-Catholic party girl, immerses herself in alcohol and one-night stands. Raised by a neglectful single parent, April embraces a radical activism that threatens to consume her. And Bree, a Southern beauty engaged to her hometown sweetheart, finds unexpected romance with another woman. In her debut novel, Sullivan chronicles their exuberant highs and extreme lows as they navigate the turbulent waters of family, friendship, sexuality, and postgraduate life.
Knopf. 324 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307270740

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Even as several subplots take soapy turns, 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." Leah Greenblatt

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters who have fun, have fights and fall into intense love affairs, sometimes with one another. Smith's feathers may be ruffled by the candor with which Ms. Sullivan describes campus life." Janet Maslin

Philadelphia City Paper 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... [The women's] struggles, reactions and decisions feel real. How they pull through-and pull together-proves inspiring." Mark Cofta

New York Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Sullivan's voice is funny and smart, and three of the four characters are complexly drawn. ... [A] fun, fresh and sometimes insightful read!" Sara Vilkomerson

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For all its insights into female psychology, Commencement doesn't know what to make of men, who are presented as at best benevolent blanks, at worst menacing nonentities. ... [An] undertow of denial and avoidance is unfortunate in a novel with so much verve, making it feel overly tame." Maria Russo

Critical Summary

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 ( 4 of 5 Stars 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.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. What are your thoughts on single-sex education?

2. Do you think Commencement presents an accurate description of a women's college?

3. In the novel the character Sally becomes involved with a professor. Do you think student/teacher relationships are more common at women's colleges? Or is that an out-dated myth?

4. This book has a strong feminist message. What do you take away from this?

5. Commencement's protagonists graduate from Smith in 2002. Gloria Steinem compares Commencement to Mary McCarthy's The Group, which depicts a group of eight young women who graduate from Vassar in 1933. And Gloria Steinem, herself, graduated from Smith College in 1956. How do you think these three generations of experiences at women's colleges differ and how do they remain the same?

6. Each character thought they had a very clear notion of who they were when entering college. How did each grow and change during their time there and what impact did their unique friendships have on each other?

7. Do you think all of the protagonists in Commencement are feminists?

8. On page 155, Sally feels her friends have not celebrated her engagement enough and she remarks “The real sting in it came from the fact that the same women who had counseled her through her grief for four years at college wanted nothing to do with her joy. Perhaps it took more to feel truly happy for a friend than it did to feel sympathy for her.” Do you think Sally is right, or do you think other emotions are at play for her friends?

9. When Bree and Lara visit Lara's boss's house, they meet Nora and Roseanna and their son, Dylan. Bree seems to find them ridiculous while Lara embraces their lifestyle. How does this incident speak to the roles they play in their relationship and how does Bree's family situation color her perceptions of this afternoon?

10. Each of the four women in Commencement has a different kind of mother and a different kind of relationship with her. How is each girl a reflection of her mother and how do their bonds (or severed bonds) influence their decisions?

11. Poet John Malcolm Brinnin once said, “Proximity is nine-tenths of friendship.” How true is that for these women?

12. What is your favorite college memory?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.