Commencement is J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, published in 2009.
Commencement is a story about four girls who meet at a women’s college: Celia, Sally, Bree and April have nothing in common at first glance, but their relationships evolve until they are firm friends. The novel explores the very different lives they pursue once they graduate, and how being friends doesn’t mean you agree with each other’s life choices.
What I thought
Commencement was a lovely surprise. I was expecting a fairly “ordinary” book about girl on girl jealousy and female friendships. I couldn’t have been more wrong: while those topics do come up, the novel is far more original and modern than that, delving in great depth into themes like homosexuality, feminism, social class, abuse and wealth.
These girls may be privileged (for the most part), but they are far from ordinary. The characters’ feelings and choices are depicted in great detail, turning them into real people and not just superficial “types” of characters: the feminist, the lesbian, the slut, the rich girl. They all find the first years after college difficult and comfort themselves with the thought that they are the “freshmen of life”. I really appreciated that idea, given the fact that I myself just finished studying and sometimes feel like I still have an awful lot to learn!
This novel manages to be funny and shocking at the same time, all the while being incredibly realistic. I think the realism of it all was what I appreciated the most: while the characters evolve and surprise you at times, they stay true to themselves and go through hardships that are a part of real life.
The emotions involved are truly complex and make you reflect on your own life choices and those of the people around you. This book addresses sensitive subjects relative to violence and abuse while also spending time on everyday, ordinary lives. The “happy ending”, while positive, is far from the perfect conclusion to a classic storyline based on the typical exposition-rise-climax-ending structure.
I highly recommend this book: it is fresh, down to earth, funny and tragic at the same time. I’ll definitely be reading J. Courtney Sullivan’s other books in the months to come!