Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2009
Smith has long held a place in America’s cultural imagination, and rarely more so than now. The release of the Nora Ephron film Julie & Julia, celebrating the exuberant legacy of Julia McWilliams Child ’34, capped a series of books and movies that even found Cybill Shepherd playing an Ada Comstock Scholar on the Hallmark Channel. In print and on screen Smith is subject, subtext, and source—and Smith women’s lives are front and center.
Perfection, a memoir by Julie Metz ’81, recounts how, after the sudden, early death of her husband, she discovered his many infidelities. A Pearl in the Storm, by Tori Murden McClure ’85, recalls the journey in which she became the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Outcasts United, by Warren St. John, describes how Luma Mufleh ’97 founded a multinational youth soccer team and literacy program in the refugee community of Clarkston, Georgia, a story under contract for a major film. The novel Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan ’03, centers on four students who meet as hallmates at Smith, forming friendships whose richness and complexity will ring true to any Smithie.
Reading these books in succession is an immersion in the narrative structures of women’s lives. A Pearl in the Storm opens with Tori McClure asking her uncle what genre would best suit her story. “Should I write it as a comedy, a history, a tragedy, or a romance?” “A romance,” he replies. “It must be a romance.” The book’s subtitle, How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, makes clear that Tori has taken her uncle’s counsel, but the story she writes has more in common with the chivalric tales of the Middle Ages, in which a knight conquers monsters to win the heart of a lady, than the love stories in the romance section at Barnes and Noble. A Pearl in the Storm is about self-discovery, about Tori’s coming to understand not just the strengths but the vulnerabilities and fears that propel her across the ocean. Even as the narrative moves forward–day by day, mile by nautical mile—its progress encompasses the past, as Tori reflects on friendships, on her relationship with her disabled brother, on her education, at Smith and elsewhere, on her discovery of love.
Each of these books is a romance in this complex way. Perfection is perhaps the most complex romance of the group, for Julie Metz takes on the challenge of re-interpreting two lives—her own and her late husband’s—after her discovery of his affairs makes her question much of what she thought she understood about their life together. Like A Pearl in the Storm, the book moves at once forward and back, mourning a life Metz discovers she never really had while seeking to comprehend how the search for peak experience—for perfection—can motivate the messiest of betrayals.
Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement follows a more straightforward narrative structure, perhaps because the characters it concerns are at an earlier point in their lives. It is a novel in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Lee Smith’s The Last Girls, Sara Davidson’s Loose Change, or a Smith novel from the 1940s, Marian C. Champagne’s The Cauliflower Heart. Like these, it interweaves the life stories of a group of friends, during and after their time in college. Sullivan captures the character of women’s friendships and the confusion and messiness of life after the seemingly simple starting point of postgraduate life. In each of these works, college becomes the great good place, to borrow Henry James’ phrase, as life narratives fracture and dissolve in the patchwork of choices and compromises the women face in forming their adult lives.
Outcasts United—A Refugee Team, an American Town is the one book in this group about but not by a Smithie (although I understand author Warren St. John’s sister is a Smith alumna). It arises from the story of Luma Mufleh, an extraordinarily dedicated soccer coach and mentor, to encompass the struggles of her players’ suburban Atlanta community, where refugee families from Sudan, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan struggle against poverty and racism to begin their lives anew. Luma’s story, that of a young woman from Jordan making a life for herself in America after choosing not to return to her family following graduation, intersects with the stories of Clarkston’s refugee families, relocated by the US government, trying to restart their own lives in a foreign land. Together, through the unlikely soccer program Luma creates, they begin to transform the world they inhabit, and Luma shapes a life she never would have anticipated.
As a women’s college, Smith takes seriously its obligation to help students compose the lives they seek—lives of achievement, leadership, family, service, fulfillment, and satisfaction. Too often, as the writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has taught us, the master narrative is presented as one of linear, single-focused, forward motion, rather than the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back trajectory that characterizes most of our lives. Smith’s Women’s Narratives of Success project, now in its third year, is premised on the very understanding that these four Smith books reveal: that we make our lives by moving forward but also backward in a recursive pattern of understanding, in which the habits of reflection and the strength of relationships developed in the crucial college years remain formative and restoring touch-points.