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July 6, 2009

Jennifer DeBerardinis '11 reviews “Commencement," the novel by alumna J. Courtney Sullivan '03, which has garnered a lot of attention — from mainstream media and Smithies alike — since hitting bookstores June 16.

book coverThey’ve moved far, far away from their four-year retreat in Smith College's King House—Celia  a floundering writer, Bree a successful attorney in love with a Smith classmate, Sally a mother to be, and April—ever the rebel—deployed to the frontline of the fight for women’s rights. Even Celia admits their life paths have taken turns they’d never imagined as first-years, gossiping in the King-Scales dining room over dinner nearly a decade earlier. In those days, Southern belle Bree was engaged to the man of her dreams, Sally falling for a brilliant professor-poet, April organizing Celebration and every rights rally on campus, and Celia providing the emotional glue to keep the foursome stuck together. Five years after graduation, though, their friendship is fading, and the turbulent year surrounding Sally’s divisive wedding threatens to cut their once immutable Smithie ties.

What finally endears the young women to each other belongs as much to “Commencement” author J. Courtney Sulilvan ’03 as to her uncannily vivid characters: an unapologetic, unwavering Smithie-ness that conquers the greatest distances and most minatory friendship rifts.

Sullivan herself likened the compelling novel to a love letter—made out of Smith, of course, and the friendships, traditions, and unshakable school spirit that define the four years that us lucky few get to enjoy here. For Smithie readers, it’s a reaffirmation of the reasons we chose to attend Smith (big single rooms), the reasons we’re in love with it (having friends as loyal as Celia and admirable as April), and the reasons we will be at the same time horrified and thrilled to graduate. If Celia, Bree, Sally, and April are any example, we can take heart in the continuity of Smithie-ness; commitment to college love will only grow after that fateful May day when we’re kicked off of Paradise Road and into the real world, no matter how far from Northampton we stray.

“Commencement” delivers more than pretty love odes to Sullivan’s alma mater, though. The author moves beyond neatly packaged friendship-conquers-all themes with the weighty—and definitively unanswerable—questions that face young women today. Among these are how to achieve a balance between career and family, define sexuality amid black-and-white societal expectations, and figure out just how far is too far in sticking up for one’s beliefs. In the end, Sullivan shows, Smith doesn’t force feed students those answers. It gives grads the fortitude to decide for themselves.

Even so, Sullivan is too timid to confront some issues she hesitantly broaches: Celia’s excessive drinking and indifference to people around her, April’s inability to say no.  In the end, though, we’re contented with the knowledge that surviving Smith means surviving anything: a baby, an abusive boss, a family that doesn’t accept the person you love.

Many of us delight in the reputation that Smithies can save the world and be home in time for 4 p.m. tea. During a discussion about “Commencement”, a friend of mind remarked that the novel’s depiction of post-college life is depressing—will we really be stuck with unsavory editing jobs when all we want to do is write great literature? Or have to choose between family and the person we love? But Sullivan’s post-Smith life is comforting in its realism; Celia, Bree, April, and Sally have done nothing overtly revolutionary, but their commitment to one another and to finding themselves in a world not often conducive to either pursuit is as honorable as it gets. For an even more impressive example of what a Smithie is capable of, just read Sullivan’s short biography on the back cover.

Of course, a good Smith novel has to include a few stereotypes—the BDOCs (big dykes on campus) and SLUGS (Smith lesbians until graduation; we love our acronyms), the girls who’ve let themselves go, the lie prospective students hear year after year: “You will meet men here” and the few diehard believers who still venture to Amherst parties. And reading about the campus’s most honored traditions-Celebration, Immorality, afternoon tea—is undeniably fun. More deeply, though, for alumnae and current Smithies alike, Sullivan’s work serves as a refreshing meditation on the quirky and cherished school so unique it often defies description. To know Smith is to live it. Sullivan deserves much praise for so vividly capturing that life in just over 300 pages.

DeBerardinisThe reviewer
DeBerardinis, of Glendale, Maryland, is currently working in a biochemistry lab at the University of California San Fransico as part of an undergraduate summer research program. "It's definitely different here, and I've gotten a little Smith-sick, but a great experience overall," said DeBerardinis, a biological sciences and philosophy major. "I'm learning a lot of new research techniques and trying to figure out what to do with my life."

Additional reviews

NEW YORK TIMES, June 12, Sunday Book Review

The reviewer near Scales House with her Smithie friends. From left to right, Cece Vayda '10, Samantha Torquato '11, Jennifer DeBerardinis '11, Erin King '11.


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