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Cover of "Commencement: A novel"

Cover of Commencement: A novel


So I was at the library the other day (though, let’s face it, that’s basically the same thing as saying I was breathing the other day) looking through the Friends of the Library book sale section when I saw Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan. It had a cute cover and it was only $1.50, so I immediately bought it.


I was also intrigued by the premise: four very different women become close friends during their first year at Smith College and the subsequent years both try their friendship and bring them closer together. Because all of my friends are going off to college literally as we speak (while I’m gap year-ing it thankfully) I felt like this book could not have come at a better time and would probably give me lots of helpful insights into what my friends (and I, eventually) could expect from that first year of college.


So. I started reading the book and I was actually really liking it – the characters were interesting, the writing was fluid, and I loved all the little details about Smith. (Sullivan, it turns out, is a Smith alumnae, and it really shows.) But as I rounded the 50 page mark, I realized that the book, while perfectly enjoyable, didn’t really feel like a novel to me. It felt more like I was reading a very long and well-written dossier about four different people (physical description of Sally, Sally’s family life, Sally’s relationship history etc etc…) in which the events of their lives were relayed in a dry this-happened-and-then-this-happened format, which is fine, you know, if you’re reading a history textbook or a private investigator’s report, but not exactly satisfying in a novel. I think the essential problem was that Sullivan told so much more that she showed.


Apart from that, I thought the book brought up a lot of really interesting and important themes. These women are constantly grappling with what it means to be a true feminist, and how hard it can feel to reconcile being a feminist with wanting to find love. The book also brings up a really valid point which is that the women of this current generation have so many more choices and so much more independence than our ancestors did, and yet there is still a world of opposition against women’s rights, not to mention the fact that these new freedoms present inherent problems and challenges of their own.


As a fully-fledged novel, Commencement missed the mark for me, but as a jumping-off point to explore ideas of modern feminism and the joys and challenges of female friendship, it excelled.



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