J. Courtney Sullivan has definitely worked her way onto my Favorite Authors list. She is lighter than but definitely reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld, especially with Commencement, which reminds me oh so much of Prep.
Commencement is the story of four girls who attend Smith College in the late 90s/early 2000s– that’s pre-Facebook, people! — and become lifelong friends. Sounds pretty corny, but there’s a lot more depth to it than that. Celia is the good little Catholic girl with a sassy side from a big Irish family in Boston; Sally is Northeastern WASP and junior millionaire whose mother dies just weeks before she leaves for college; Bree is sweet Southern belle from Savannah who arrives to her freshman dorm with an engagement ring on her finger; April is a dreadlocked super-feminist from Chicago. An unlikely foursome, the girls all live on the same floor freshman year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first half of the book kind of goes back and forth between the four girls being back on campus for Sally’s wedding only four years after graduation, and their actual time spent on campus. We go through Celia’s constant need to be the group leader and upsetting, to say the least, experience with rape at Dartmouth College, Sally’s inner turmoil over losing her mother too young and subsequent scandalous affair with a professor, Bree’s breakup with her fiance and subsequent relationship with another female on campus, and April’s deeply troubled pre-Smith past and dangerously radical feminist post-Smith future.
The second half of the book is more about the present, after the wedding (the night before which the four girls get into a big fight) and after Sally discovers she’s pregnant. It takes an odd turn when we learn April has been living in Atlanta as an undercover prostitute to help her insane boss, Ronnie, bring attention to the child sex trafficking trade, and one day she disappears. Such an event bonds the other three girls back together again in new ways, despite the big fight at the wedding, but the rest is a mighty odd way for a story like this to go. I am not completely satisfied with the ending, not because it isn’t happy enough, but because it doesn’t really END. I feel like just ONE more little chapter or epilogue would have done the trick.
This book gives a good look at just a few of the complexities of female friendships, and probably ranks second among J. Courtney Sullivan’s books (1 being The Engagements, 3 being Maine). I look forward to more from her.