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A sparkling debut novel: a tender story of friendship, a witty take on liberal arts colleges, and a fascinating portrait of the first generation of women who have all the opportunities in the world, but no clear idea about what to choose.
Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn’t have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother’s rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a “Riot: Don’t Diet” T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.
Together they experience the ecstatic highs and painful lows of early adulthood: Celia’s trust in men is demolished in one terrible evening, Bree falls in love with someone she could never bring home to her traditional family, Sally seeks solace in her English professor, and April realizes that, for the first time in her life, she has friends she can actually confide in.
When they reunite for Sally’s wedding four years after graduation, their friendships have changed, but they remain fiercely devoted to one another. Schooled in the ideals of feminism, they have to figure out how it applies to their real lives in matters of love, work, family, and sex. For Celia, Bree, and Sally, this means grappling with one-night stands, maiden names, and parental disapproval—along with occasional loneliness and heartbreak. But for April, whose activism has become her life’s work, it means something far more dangerous.
Written with radiant style and a wicked sense of humor, Commencement not only captures the intensity of college friendships and first loves, but also explores with great candor the complicated and contradictory landscape facing young women today.
“Sullivan's debut novel, Commencement, works like a backstage pass to a world I barely knew existed–the elite contemporary women's college, the world of Smithies–with their rampant anagrams (including my favorite, S.L.U.G., Smith Lesbian Until Graduation), fluid and complex sexuality, eccentric traditions, arch politics, and, most of all, incredibly deep and enduring friendships. As a foreigner in this foreign land, I felt supremely lucky to have Sullivan as my trustworthy guide. Her portraits of these four Smithies is honest, urgent, and heartfelt.” —Bridget Asher, author of My Husband's Sweethearts
“Sullivan writes with a verve and ambition that makes the novel's four friends into real women, besieged–as real women are–by confusion, joy, and compromise. I enjoyed every page of Commencement.” —Martha Moody, author of Best Friends and The Office of Desire
“Take Mary McCarthy's The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.” –Gloria Steinem
“In the spirit of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Mary McCarthy's The Group, J. Courtney Sullivan delivers an engrossing, multi-layered tale of women, friendship, and the fascinating institution of higher education that shapes and influences them. Commencement is the can't-put-it-down novel that you will recommend to your best friends this summer.” –Elin Hilderbrand, author of Barefoot
“Commencement is an accomplished, compulsively readable novel about the intricate bonds of female friendship. A literary page-turner at once entertaining and moving.” –Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White
“Sullivan's debut crackles with intelligent observations about the inner sanctum of the all-women's elite (yet scholarship-laden) college life.” –Booklist
“Sullivan's novel quickly endears the reader to her cast.” –Publishers Weekly
“I was deeply engaged by the characters and their complexity. . . . One of the differences between fiction and literature is that the latter thrives on layers of ambiguity and ambivalence, and in Commencement I see the launch of a literary career.” —Nicholas Kristof, nytimes.com
“Smith College alumnae Celia, Sally, April, and Bree have suffered several years of the indignities and follies that all women’s-college graduates do–mainly, confused and floundering relations with the opposite sex. But now Sally is getting married, and they’re reconvening on campus to celebrate–and to learn that going “home” again isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. Other harsh realities pale, however, when April goes missing under searingly unfortunate circumstances. The intense connection of these women to one another changes their futures in ways that are convincing and unique.”–Elle (Winner of the Elle Readers Prize)
“As [Commencement] takes the women from their first shaky steps toward independence through the ups and downs of their 20s, you'll relive–and celebrate–the stomach-dropping moments of the best friend-relationship roller-coaster.” –Redbook
“Commencement is one of this year’s most inviting summer novels. It tells of four Smith College dorm mates who reunite for a wedding four years after graduation, and it manages to be so entertaining that this setup never feels schematic. In a novel that’s what Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep aspired to be (i.e. a smart, discerning book about school years) Ms. Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters who have fun, have fights and fall into intense love affairs, sometimes with one another. . . . Gloria Steinem likes Commencement. She ought to; the women of Commencement are big fans of hers.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Many writers have tried to duplicate The Group. . . J. Courtney Sullivan comes admirably close. McCarthy was very much of her era, and so is Sullivan. . . . 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.” —Entertainment Weekly Grade: A-
“This story about four Smith College students and the paths they follow post-graduation celebrates friendship and explores modern-day feminism. At the same time, it’s just a really devourable read–think a 2009 version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.” –Cookie magazine
“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. . . skillfully blending their stories. . . . Their struggles, reactions and decisions feel real. How they pull through–and pull together–proves inspiring.” —Philadelphia City Paper
“Brave. . . . Commencement . . . offer[s] a witty take on the stereotypes of women’s colleges, much as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep did with elite boarding schools. . . . Sullivan’s gifts are substantial.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Wickedly sharp. . . . Ms. Sullivan’s voice is funny and smart. . . . A fun, fresh . . . insightful read.” —The New York Observer
“Four friends bond at Smith College and stumble toward adulthood in Sullivan’s intelligent, diverting debut.” –People
“Garnering rave reviews. . . . [Commencement] delves into the complex choices young women face today.” –The Boston Globe
“For everyone wondering about the impact of the single-sex policy on feminism, transgender issues, lesbian behavior and orientation, dating, and the aspirations of graduates, J. Courtney Sullivan has produced the definitive fictionalized anthropological study in her first novel, Commencement. Fortunately, however, the book isn’t a breathless exposé. Following four hallmates who become best friends through their Smith years and then through four years of transition, Sullivan produces a page-turner about the personal implications of an unavoidably political education. . . . Refreshingly naturalistic. . . . Commencement is much more than a novel about academia or young women. It’s a thoughtful, engrossing study in lives transformed and relationships realigned, full of details and dilemmas that speak to a broad audience.” –The Onion’s A.V. Club, Grade: A-
“Taking a page from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, J. Courtney Sullivan has honed in on so much of the utter anguish of adolescence and young adulthood. Her characters are brilliantly flawed, intensely realistic, thoroughly compassionate, and often incredibly funny. . . . With this warm, insightful debut, Sullivan has positioned herself as a voice to watch.” –BookPage
“[Commencement is] layered with love and honesty and promises that friendship perseveres when nothing else might or seem to.” –Christine Coppa, Glamour.com
“Sullivan’s description of Smith’s strange social mores are nuanced and precise, conveying with a refreshing sense of humor the challenges and frustrations that Smith brings while still making plain her deep love for the college. Women who read Commencement will undoubtedly feel a part of the sisterhood, chronicled by the novel’s central friendship, which permeates all of Smith College.” –Louisville Courier-Journal
“I love the fact that the philosophical and political viewpoints of many revered feminists are quoted throughout the book. Sullivan assumes you know who she's talking about, and I appreciate greatly that she figured most of her readers could handle it. It's yet another vein of gold that wraps itself throughout the intricately interwoven lives of these very true-to-life characters. If I win the Mega Millions jackpot, I call first dibs on the movie rights! Commencement is the beginning of something great.” –Jana Siciliano, Bookreporter
“Sullivan tells an involving story of four students from different backgrounds who share quarters at Smith College. It sounds trite, but it isn’t. The women change the course of their lives over the years in dramatic ways. . . . Chick lit with depth and engagement.” –New York Daily News
“Janet Maslin of The New York Times calls this debut novel ‘one of this year’s most inviting summer novels.’ Hard to disagree. . . . There’s a lot of truth and texture here . . . and it’s totally entertaining.” –The New Haven Register
“Sullivan’s bright and witty prose weaves itself around real places–the ivy-covered paths of the liberal arts world and the imposing concrete streets of Manhattan–that feel familiar and relevant to real women.” –The Frisky