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Written by J. Courtney SullivanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by J. Courtney Sullivan

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On Sale: June 16, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27198-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

J. Courtney Sullivan’s celebrated debut novel is a sparkling tale of friendship 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 a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, preppy and obsessively neat, 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. Written with radiant style and a wicked sense of humor, Commencement follows these unlikely friends through college and the years beyond, brilliantly capturing the complicated landscape facing young women today.

Excerpt

Sullivan: COMMENCEMENT

Part One

SMITH ALUMNAE QUARTERLY
Spring 2006 Class Notes

CLASS OF ’02

Robin Hughes graduates from Northwestern this May with a master’s in public health. She lives in Chicago with fellow Hopkins House alum Gretchen (Gretch) Anderson . . . Natalie Goldberg (Emerson House) and her partner Gina Black (class of ’99) have finally realized their dream of moving to Finland and opening a karaoke bar! So far, they say, Emersonians Emma Bramley-Hawke and Joy Watkins have already stopped in for several verses of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. . . After four years of working in a health clinic in her native Malaysia, Jia-Yi Moa has been accepted to NYU Medical School! . . . And now, news from my own darling group of girls: Sally Werner, who works as a researcher in a medical lab at Harvard, is getting married (on the Smith campus!) this May to longtime boyfriend Jake Brown. Fellow King House alums Bree Miller (Stanford Law ’05), April Adams (intrepid research assistant for Women in Peril, Inc.), and yours truly will be serving as bridesmaids. Look out for the embarrassing drunken photos in the next issue. Until then, happy spring to all and keep sending me those updates.

Your class secretary,

Celia Donnelly(celiad@alumnae.smith.edu)



Celia

Celia woke with a gasp.

Her head was throbbing, her throat was dry, and it was already nine o’clock. She was late for Sally’s wedding or, at least, for the bus that would take her there. She silently cursed herself for going out the night before. What the hell kind of a bridesmaid showed up late to the wedding of a dear friend, and hungover at that?

Sun streamed through the windows of her little alcove studio. From her spot in bed, Celia could see two beer bottles and an open bag of tortilla chips on the coffee table by the couch, and, oh Jesus, there was a condom wrapper on the floor. Well then, that answered that.

The guy lying next to her was named either Brian or Ryan; that much she remembered. Everything else was a bit of a blur. She vaguely recollected kissing him on the front stoop of her building, fumbling for the keys, his hand already moving up her leg and under her skirt. She did not recall having sex or, for that matter, eating tortilla chips.

She was lucky not to have been chopped up into little bits. Her sober self needed to somehow get the message to her drunk self that it was entirely unadvisable to bring strange men home. You saw it in the papers all the time—They met at a party, he asked her to go for a stroll, two days later the police found her torso in a dumpster in Queens. She wished that casual sex wasn’t so intimately connected to the possibility of being murdered, but there you had it.

Celia leaned toward him now and kissed his cheek, trying to affect an air of calm.

“I’ve got to leave soon,” she said softly. “Do you want to hop in the shower?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have to go into the office today,” he said. “Got a golf date with some clients this afternoon. Mind if I sleep in?”

“Umm, no,” she said. “That’s fine.”

Celia looked him over. Blond hair, perfect skin, chiseled arms, dimples. He was cute, suspiciously cute. Too attractive for his own good, as her mother would say.

Before she left, she kissed him again. “The door will lock automatically behind you. And there’s coffee on the counter if you want it.”

“Thanks,” he said. “So I’ll call you?”

“Good. Well, see you later, then.”

From his tone, she figured the odds of his actually calling were about fifty-fifty, not bad for a drunken hookup.

Celia headed toward the subway. Was it weird that he had asked to stay in her apartment? Should she have demanded that he leave with her? He looked clean-cut, and he said he worked in finance. He didn’t seem like the type who would go home with a girl just to rob her, but what did she really know about him anyway? Celia was twenty-six years old. Now into what she considered her late twenties, she had begun compiling a mental inventory of men she should not sleep with. As she stepped onto the A train, she added Guys who might be suspected of stealing my belongings to the list.

Twenty minutes later, she was sprinting through Port Authority, praying for the bus to be five minutes late. Just five extra minutes, that was all she needed.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women,” she muttered. “Come on, come on.”

It was a habit of hers, a remnant of a time when she actually believed in God and would say a Hail Mary whenever she was in trouble. Celia realized now that what she had once thought of as prayers were in fact just wishes. She didn’t expect the Virgin to actually do anything—even if she did exist, she probably wouldn’t be in the business of controlling buses running express from Manhattan to Northampton, Mass. All the same, the familiar words calmed Celia down. She tried to use them sparingly so as not to offend the Mother of God, a woman she didn’t believe in, but even so.

Her mother revered the Virgin Mary, saying the rosary in her car on the way to work each morning, keeping a statue of the Madonna in the front garden for years, until a Presbyterian family moved in across the street (not wanting to offend them, she dug up the statue and put it out back). She believed that Mary had all the power, that Jesus was secondary to her, because he had come from her womb. Celia often marveled at how her mother was perhaps the only person on earth to perceive Catholicism as matriarchal.

She reached the gate just as the bus driver was collecting the last of the tickets and closing the door.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Wait! Please!”

The driver looked up in sleepy-eyed surprise. She hoped he wasn’t as hungover as she was.

“Please! I have to get on that bus!” she said.

“Hurry up, then,” he said. “There’s one seat left.”

It wasn’t like Celia to draw attention to herself in public, but the thought of Sally’s disappointment if she had to call and say she was running late was just too much to bear. Besides, Celia had been looking forward to this weekend for months. She did not want to miss a moment with the girls.

She pushed through the aisle, past mothers bouncing crying babies on their laps, teenagers with their headphones blaring, and twenty-somethings having loud cell phone conversations about insanely private matters. Bringing new meaning to hell on wheels, that ought to be Greyhound’s slogan. She was desperate for more coffee and as much Advil as she could take without killing herself.

Despite the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride that lay ahead, Celia smiled. Soon she would be with them again—Sally, impeccable and impulsive, a twenty-five-year-old millionaire in a thrift-store wedding gown; April, brave and opinionated, with that sometimes reckless air that worried them all; and Bree, beautiful and bright eyed and mired in a doomed love affair—she was still Celia’s favorite, despite all the changes and distance between them.

Celia sat down beside a pimply teenager reading a comic book. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep.

Eight years earlier, on Orientation Day, Celia wept in the backseat of her father’s Lincoln Town Car all the way out to Smith. The family had to pull over in a Taco Bell parking lot so she could get herself together before meeting her housemates. By the time she arrived at the front door of Franklin King House, she was fixed with a big fake smile and half a tube of her sister’s Maybelline concealer. (Celia had always prided herself on being a girl who didn’t wear makeup, but she realized at that moment that she did in fact apply powder and mascara and eye shadow most mornings, she just never bought any of it herself.) She held back tears for hours as they carried boxes upstairs and mingled with other new students and their families on the lawn of the science quad. Then, at last, it was time for the family to go, and there was an embarrassing, agonizing moment in which the four of them—Celia, Violet, and their parents—stood in a circle and embraced, everyone crying except for Violet, who was fifteen and eager to get back home in time to see her boyfriend’s ska band play at the Knights of Columbus Hall. (The band was called For Christ’s Sake, and Celia’s mother thought they were a Christian rock group. She didn’t know that the last word was pronounced with an emphasis on the e, like the Japanese wine.)

After they left, Celia cried until she felt as hollow as a jack-o’-lantern. College had snuck up on her, and unlike so many of her friends, who had been dying to leave home, Celia liked her life just fine as it was. She couldn’t imagine going to sleep at night without first creeping into her parents’ room, curling up with the dogs at the foot of their bed as her father watched Letterman and her mother read some trashy novel. She couldn’t picture herself sharing a bathroom with anyone but Violet—you couldn’t yell at a dorm mate for using up all the hot water the way you could your sister. You couldn’t squeeze your blackheads in front of the mirror, wrapped in a towel and dripping wet from a shower while she sat on the edge of the tub and clipped her toenails.

At Smith, Celia worried that she would never again feel truly comfortable.

Along with a month’s worth of groceries for a family of five, her mother had given her a prayer card with a picture of the Virgin printed on the front and her great-grandmother’s golden wall cross.

“You know this isn’t a convent, right?” her father teased his wife.

After a lifetime of Catholic school, Celia considered herself an atheist, but she was still terrified to throw these things in the trash—it seemed like a surefire way to get struck by lightning. Instead, she shoved them in the back of her top drawer and covered them over with underwear and socks.

Celia pulled two bottles of vodka from her suitcase, where they lay wrapped in a Snoopy bath towel that she’d had since she was eight. As she placed them in her mini-fridge, she realized with some delight that she didn’t have to hide them from anyone.

She unpacked the rest of her clothes and filled the closet. The room was small, with plain white wallpaper, a single bed, an oak dresser, a nightstand, and a dingy little mirror with a faded Clinton/Gore ’96 sticker stuck to the bottom. Having seen friends’ rooms at Holy Cross and BC, Celia knew that this one was cozy and clean by comparison. Smith had free cable TV in every room, and private phones for each student, and huge windows with thick sills you could sit on, reading for hours. Her parents were going into crazy debt so she could be here. (“We’ll be paying the loans off until your kids are in college,” her father had said the previous spring, in one final attempt to make her go to a state school.) She knew she ought to feel grateful. Still, Celia got a little hysterical, imagining living the next four years between these walls.

She tried to go as long as she could without calling her mother. She lasted three hours.

“I started to drive on the way back here so your father could rest his eyes,” her mother said. “I didn’t even make it to exit eighteen before I was crying so hard that I had to pull over and switch seats with Daddy.”

Celia laughed. “I miss you guys so much already.”

Just then, a girl appeared outside the open door to her room. She looked like a middle-aged man, with a huge beer gut hanging over her khakis and a small brown stain on her white T-shirt. Her hair was slicked back, and she held a clipboard in her hand.

Celia hoped she hadn’t heard her blubbering away to her mother like a five-year-old.

“I gotta go,” she said into the phone.

“Celia Donnelly?” the girl said, looking down at her list. Her voice was deep and gravelly. “Pleased to meet you. I’m your HP—that’s house president—Jenna the Monster Truck Collins. First-year meeting in the living room in five.”

Downstairs in the living room a few minutes later, they sat in a circle on the floor, and Celia took stock of the other new girls. There were fifteen of them in all, and they mostly looked like the girls she’d known in high school. They wore jeans or cotton sundresses; they had touches of lip gloss and mascara on their faces, and smooth, long hair. Then there were the girls leading the meeting: Jenna the Monster Truck; two other seniors about her size, both named Lisa, both with cropped boy haircuts; and a junior named Becky, who looked like she might be positively gorgeous if only she gave a damn about her appearance. Her shoulder-length hair lay flat, clumped with grease, and her face was so shiny that, for the first time ever, Celia envisioned herself taking a little witch hazel to a stranger’s skin. With the exception of Jenna, they all wore flannel pajamas.

Is this what she and the others would become? Celia wondered. Did attending a women’s college make you relinquish all grooming products and embrace carbohydrates like you only had a week left to live? (Later she would learn that if you weren’t careful, the answers to these questions were yes and yes. After one semester, about a quarter of the girls would be going crazy, filling out transfer applications to Wesleyan or Swarthmore or any coed school that would take them midway through the year.)


From the Hardcover edition.
J. Courtney Sullivan|Author Q&A

About J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan - Commencement

Photo © Michael Lionstar

J. Courtney Sullivan is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It will be translated into seventeen languages. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among many others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

J. Courney Sullivan is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Author Q&A

Q: One of COMMENCEMENT’s protagonists, Celia Donnelly, is an Irish girl from Milton, MA, who moves to New York after graduation. You’re an Irish girl from Milton who moved to New York after graduation. Is Celia—or any of the characters—modeled after you?
A:
For the most part, every character in COMMENCEMENT—Celia very much included—is made up of material that’s about ten percent borrowed from real life, and ninety percent pure fiction. There are definitely a lot of similarities between me and Celia: we live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, our upbringings were similar, we sort of look alike, and as children we both took embarrassing Irish step dancing classes that left us completely unable to dance like normal people. But Celia is much more of a wild child than I ever was. She’s fairly apolitical, while I am obsessed with politics and women’s issues. Politically, I am most aligned with April. And I guess there’s a bit of me in Sally, too—I am a total neat freak, and have even been known to wash my keys in soapy water now and again, as Sally does. (Think of how dirty they get!) There are small similarities between me and every one of my characters: I share Bill’s love of W.H. Auden and Bree’s love of Dolly Parton. But then again, part of the fun of writing a novel is living vicariously: Last year, when I desperately wanted to get a dog, I gave one to Celia instead. She has a closet full of fabulous designer clothes, while I have six black sweaters with varying necklines.

Q: In the same vein, are any of the characters based on your friends?
A:
When I was a student at Smith, I met some of the most incredible women in the world. Many of them are still my best friends today, and since I’d like to keep it that way, there are no one-to-one ratios in the book. A high school teacher of mine once said that a normal person would see a man in a yellow raincoat get splashed by passing traffic, and a moment later move on to the next thing, the image gone forever. But a writer would store that image (and a million others like it) away and find a way to use it someday, sort of like a bird making a nest. Certainly, some moments and traits and exchanges from my Smith days have made it onto the page: The Mahjong played around Lara’s Christmas table is totally stolen from a holiday spent in London with my friend Karin’s family. Jenna the Monster Truck Collins is definitely based on someone real. (You know who you are.) And some of the broader story lines were drawn from life. The problem is, once you’ve published a novel, this little secret about the nest-making is most definitely out, and you go from years of quietly collecting other people’s stories to phone discussions with dear friends that begin: “I have something amazing to tell you, but I better not see it in one of your books.”

Q: What are your thoughts on single-sex education?
A:
Smith College made me who I am today. After the first semester, I wanted out—I was desperate to transfer to any place that would have me (any place that would have me and had boys, that is.) Six months later, I was so in love with Smith, I never wanted to leave. There is, of course, an entire body of research dedicated to the idea that women excel in a single-sex academic environment. (And, no doubt, a body of research dedicated to the reverse theory.) I only know that for me personally, there could have been no better match than Smith: My professors were inspiring and accessible, my friendships were intense and important, and I got hooked into an Old Girls Network that still benefits me personally and professionally to this day. So to any young thing considering Smith, all I can say is that if my experience is any indication, go to a women’s college: You will learn as much as you can, laugh just as much, eat even more. At times you will think you’re going insane. You’ll wonder how you can possibly survive with so much estrogen in the air. And then it will all be over, and you’ll look back, and say, “That was the time of my life.”

Q: Do you think COMMENCEMENT presents an accurate description of Smith College?
A:
COMMENCEMENT is a work of fiction that uses a real place as its backdrop, and that can be a tricky thing because it raises questions like—well, like the one you just asked. While I was writing, some people suggested that I change the school to a fictitious women’s college, but that seemed like a bad idea to me. I wanted it to be Smith, because the Seven Sisters are so distinctive and have a rich history that can’t be conveyed by calling the place Jones Women’s College, or some other made-up name. That said, there were 600 women in my graduating class, and from them you will hear at least 600 varying Smith stories. If there’s one thing I know for sure about Smithies, it’s that no two are exactly alike and there’s really no such thing as an accurate description of Smith. (Leaving aside what I just said, this answer is totally Smith.)

Q: In your 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 a myth of the old days?
A:
Definitely a myth of the old days. Does it happen here and there? Sure. But most Smith professors are not shacking up with their students. I actually feel slightly bad about Bill’s portrayal, because the vast majority of my Smith professors were men, and all of them were extremely decent, thoughtful, genuine teachers, who cared deeply about shaping young minds and never made an improper move, ever. Bill is certainly not indicative of Smith professors. In a way, I think the relationship between Sally and Bill is less about the student/teacher dynamic and more about that sort of romantic relationship many of us have when we’re young: There’s passion and poetry and madness and mayhem and hot sex on a sheepskin rug, and once it all explodes, you find someone stable and steady, who hasn’t read any poetry since Dr. Seuss, but would gladly make you a grilled cheese sandwich any time you asked.

Q: This book has a strong feminist message. What are you hoping your readers will take away from this?
A:
My love affair with the work of writers like Catherine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and Virginia Woolf inspired the more overtly feminist parts of the book. Additionally, April’s research on the trafficking of minors and sexual discrimination in the military is based on extensive interviews I did both in college and as a researcher at the New York Times. April’s experiences with the sexual exploitation of minors are, sadly, far from fictional. There were several moments during the editing process when my editor asked, “Isn’t this a bit over the top?” or “Would the police actually allow a pimp to get away with this?” Unfortunately, everything April encounters in Atlanta is based on real events. But I certainly didn’t set out to write a book about feminism, per se. I wanted to tell a story about the first generation of American women to have all the choices in the world laid out before them; a gift that is wholly incredible and a little bit terrifying. I was about the same age as the women in the book while I was writing it, and I watched my girlfriends struggling with choices: Who to love. How to work. Where to begin. The more everyday stuff in the book—from changing (or not changing) maiden names, to going Dutch on dates, to having grown up with working vs. nonworking mothers—speaks to the lives of the young women I know, myself very much included.

Q: Do you think all of your protagonists in COMMENCEMENT are feminists?
A:
I am intrigued and often aggravated by the fact that so many young women view feminism as unnecessary, negative, or somehow passé, even as they embody what it means to be a feminist. (Take, for example, Bree.) For those of us who do choose to strongly identify as feminists, there’s sometimes a degree of confusion (or worse, infighting), because there are a million different ways to be a feminist, and we can’t always seem to agree on who’s doing it right. I wanted to explore this in the divide between Sally and April’s versions of feminism. (And to a lesser extent, Celia’s. She calls herself a feminist, but in a more vaguely defined way than the others.) The movement is an amazing and powerful thing, but in some ways it is comprised of many smaller movements, missions, and ideas. It’s not a packaged set of values, which is what makes it both amazing and frustrating.

Q: You’re a young woman making it in the world of journalism. What advice would you give other young women starting out their careers?
A:
Six years ago, right after my college graduation, I arrived in New York City very well versed in Victorian literature, but rather clueless when it came to my ultimate goal: How to become a writer. It seemed like an impossible task, even though every newsstand in Manhattan was overflowing with bylines—hundreds of them, thousands even. People were getting paid to write! But how? I asked a friend who was also just starting out, but slightly ahead of me. She had published a few pieces here and there, and was much less of a fraidy-cat (let’s bring that term back, shall we?) than I. Her take was, “What’s the big mystery? Editors need ideas. Young people are overflowing with ideas. Therefore, editors want young people.” So, the first step if you want to be a writer, is say it loud, say it proud, and don’t be afraid of it. My first job was working as an assistant at Allure magazine, and that was a great opportunity because it allowed me to write small pieces and get my first bylines. If you’re not working at a publication already, pitch ideas (lots of them) to smaller newspapers and magazines. If you’re still a student, you must write for the school paper! (I didn’t, but you must!) The websites of major magazines are also a great place to start—they need content, and they are open to newer writers. If you don’t know any editors personally, pitch to the names you see on a masthead. If you’re lucky enough to get an email response—even a rejection—pitch to that person again, or ask them for advice. Sure, some people are too busy, but they’ve all been where you are, and a surprising number are very generous with their time and Rolodexes. Those first few clips are the toughest to get, but once you do, you’ll be amazed at how quickly other opportunities arise. Last thing: Learn to roll with rejection—laugh at it, mock it, decoupage your coffee table with “Thanks, but no thanks” letters. The writers I know who have made it the farthest all have talent, of course, but more importantly they have determination and grit.

Q: What are you working on now?
A:
I am working on two new books. The first originated in research I was doing for COMMENCEMENT. I was stuck on a passage about Sally’s feminist awakening (for lack of a less grandiose term—“feminist awakening” sort of makes it seem like choirs of Rosie the Riveter angels descended, but anyway.) I emailed some young feminist friends I admire to ask if there had been a moment, a person, a book, an event that had caused them to join the movement. One of those friends was the fabulous Courtney E. Martin from Feministing.com. This led to a larger discussion between the two of us, and we are now co-editing an anthology about feminist “click moments.” We have some amazing contributors lined up, including Jessica Valenti, Curtis Sittenfeld, Rebecca Traister, and Meghan Daum. The second book is a novel about a big, dysfunctional New England family and their last summer at the family beach house.The characters range in age from 30 to 83, so it’s definitely a new kind of challenge for me. On page one, I was proud of myself for realizing that a grandmother says “slacks” rather than pants, but making that sort of distinction last for 400 pages is a work-out when you’re used to writing exclusively in the voices of twenty-six-year-olds.

Q: Okay, last question. What’s your favorite college memory?
A:
As everyone says when asked this sort of question, I can’t pick just one! At least for me and my closest Smith friends, there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of glamour in our days there, and that’s the way we liked it. We certainly had our share of formal events and late nights spent partying on other campuses, but my fondest memories are the little ones that made up so much of our everyday college lives. The bulk of our thrills came from time spent doing dorky things, like drinking homemade sangria in the hallway, and singing country music until our voices were hoarse; sledding down frozen hills on baking sheets from the dining hall; and cuddling up in a friend’s bed, talking into the wee hours, then walking across the hall to your room, dialing that same friend’s extension and talking some more.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“One of the year's most inviting summer novels. . . . A smart, discerning book about school years. . . . Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters who have fun, have fights and fall into intense love affairs. . . . Gloria Steinem likes Commencement. She ought to; the women of Commencement are big fans of hers.” —The New York Times

“Wickedly sharp. . . . Ms. Sullivan’s voice is funny and smart. . . . A fun, fresh . . . insightful read.” —The New York Observer

"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

 “Manages to find that sweet spot between Serious Literature and chick lit. Commencement is a beach book for smart women.” —Entertainment Weekly

 “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
 
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
 
“Sullivan is a keen observer, with a wry sense of humor.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“Garnering rave reviews. . . [Commencement] delves into the complex choices young women face today.” —The Boston Globe
 
“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, co-founder of Ms.
 
“Brave. . . . Sullivan . . . excels at close-up portraits. . . . A novel with so much verve.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“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
 
­“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
 
“[An] intelligent, diverting debut.” —People
 
“Sullivan tells an involving story of four students from different backgrounds who share quarters at Smith College. . . . Chick lit with depth and engagement.” —New York Daily News
 
“Totally entertaining.” —The New Haven Register
 
“[Commencement is] layered with love and honesty and promises that friendship perseveres when nothing else might or seems to.” —Glamour.com
 
“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.” —Bridget Asher, author of My Husband's Sweethearts
 
“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.” –Entertainment Weekly
 
“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.” —BookPage
 
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 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.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“One of the year's most inviting summer novels. Strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters who have fun, have fights and fall into intense love affairs.” —The New York Times

The summary, questions, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of J. Courtney Sullivan's witty and accomplished debut novel, Commencement.

About the Guide

A tender story of friendship, a witty take on liberal arts colleges, and a fascinating portrait of a 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.

About the Author

J. Courtney Sullivan's work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Men's Vogue, the New York Observer, Tango, and in the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love. She is a graduate of Smith College, lives in Brooklyn, and works in the editorial department of The New York Times. Commencement is her first novel.

Discussion Guides

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?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld; The Group, Mary McCarthy; Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout; I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe; American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
J. Courtney Sullivan

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J. Courtney Sullivan - Commencement

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  • Commencement by Courtney Sullivan
  • May 11, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780307454966

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