‘Commencement’ by J. Courtney Sullivan
Towards the end of 2011 I looked around me and discovered that there was a sizable, but not insurmountable, pile of books that I had had every good intention of reading in 2011, but had never got around to. With the clock ticking and just under a week left in 2011, I set my nose to the grind-stone and did my best to get through them. I was only successful on two counts before getting pleasantly lost in Henry James’ thick prose, but they were a good two.
The first book I successfully got through was J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement. (The second was A.S. Byatt’s enjoyable The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.) I’d been wanting to read this book practically from the moment it first came on the scene in 2009 because Sullivan and I shared an alma mater, Smith College. Smith here serves as both inspiration and setting for much of the book and, because of this dual role served by our college, I felt compelled to check it out.
Commencement is basically the story of four Smithies dealing with the post-college life and remembering their time together as Smith as they float together and apart out in the Real World. I wanted it to be one of those empathetic post-college reads I’ve been stumbling upon every year or so since I graduated and loving for their shared experience of Odyssey and uncertainty.
There was a good deal of controversy among Smithies when the book first came out, with some saying that it portrayed Smith realistically and lovingly while others contended that it painted the college in a very bad light, highlighting some of its more saucy traditions for commercial reasons and playing up (unusual at Smith) professor/student romances.
So I started Commencement with both excitement and a little bit of worry. I needn’t have had either.
The read went quickly and pleasantly enough without any earth-shattering revelations or shocks of any kind. Even the “twist” ending was more-or-less expected. Occasionally Sullivan would achieve the Holy Grail of authorship (expressing something complex with utmost eloquence and simplicity, stunning the reader with the very perfection of the phrasing), but most often it was just a fine sort of book.
In regards its portrayal of Smith, I can’t say I empathized a great deal. Sullivan’s Smith existed a decade or so before mine and on the opposite end of campus (the more party-hardy end, to be honest). The traditions were familiar, but her experiences with them (or perhaps I should say her characters’ experiences with them) were made different by our lack of shared living experience. So much of Smith is shaped by which house you’re sorted into before you even arrive and that point was probably the most stark one made to me by Commencement. Turns out there were even more shenanigans going on out in the Quad that this little Green Streeter had heretofore imagined! (Not that I would trade my bookish, notably shabbier experience on Green Street with a Quad girl for anything.)
All the same, I definitely enjoyed the book and was pleasantly surprised by its intelligence and sociopolitical awareness more than a few times. I like to support fellow Smithies in their writerly endeavors, so I’m glad I bought the book, but I doubt I’ll re-read Commencement and I’m not sure to whom I should recommend it. Perhaps readers looking for something chick-lit-y, but with more smarts, more feminism, and more nostalgia. If nothing else, Commencement sure as hell made me miss college.