Wednesday, August 15, 2012

book review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

The backstory: Commencement was one of my book club's July picks.

The basics: Commencement tells the story of four friends, Celia, Sally, Bree and April, who met at Smith College and remained best friends as life took them in different directions after graduation. The four meet again at Smith for Sally's wedding and the novel unfolds in the present, as well as through flashbacks of their time at Smith.

My thoughts: There's a feeling I get sometimes when I read that the writer gets me. I don't only read to not feel alone in this world, but I celebrate when I come across a book that leaves me internally shouting, "yes!" in reaction to a character or a passage of writing. I lost count of how many times I felt affirmed by both her writing and her characters. J. Courtney Sullivan is one of those writers I celebrate, and although Commencement is not a perfect novel, it was an utterly delightful reading experience from its first pages:
"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." 
Celia is the first to narrate, and I initially connected more with her, often for characterizations like this one: "Celia wanted to know it immediately. Her mother always said she had a novelist's fascination with other people's tragic tales." Although the novel is ultimately an ensemble, Celia seems to be the main character throughout.

The novel is filled with sharp observations that are sometimes funny and almost always wise. While I enjoyed the tales of their college years immensely (I love college so much I work at one), I was moved by their lives after college, when the women remained the same age but found themselves at different points in their lives.

Favorite passage: "Back then, they had expanses of time in which to memorize one another's routines and favorite songs and worst heartaches and greatest days. It felt something like being in love, but without the weight of having to choose just one heart to hold on to, and without the fear of ever losing it."

The verdict: While some parts of the story fell a little flat for me, Commencement is still a novel I utterly adored. J. Courtney Sullivan infuses social justice and feminism beautifully to enhance the overarching theme of friendship. Sullivan wrote fully realized characters, and I loved witnessing their good times and bad times. She's clearly a writer to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: June 16, 2009
Source: bought it for my Kindle

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Commencement from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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10 comments:

  1. This is a perfect book for me, so I'm glad you posted this review. It's gone straight on the wishlist!

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    1. Sam, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  2. I love it when an author just gets to the heart of you with her words and characterizations. I have few that can do that to me, but when I find one, it's reason to celebrate. I think this is a book that I would like. I am not always a fan of novels about academia, but this one sounds like it has the blushings of something more in it. Great review today, and awesome quotes!

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    1. Zibilee, it is a reason to celebrate. I love that I can love this book so much, despite its imperfections. I'm so excited to read Maine now!

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  3. I'm glad you liked this one. Maine was so good, this one could seem kind of disappointing. I read it first though and loved it.

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    1. Laura, I'm really looking forward to reading Maine soon.

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  4. Wow, I've heard great things about this author but have yet to read anything by her. Ill keep this one in mind!

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    1. Jenny, I think you'd like her. I've heard Maine is even better, so I'm eager to read it soon!

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  5. I have heard the author speak twice and she is charming - I can only imagine her books also charm. The last time I saw her at a reading she talked about her new book which also sounds very interesting - I am not sure when it comes out.

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    1. Colleen, I've really enjoyed the essays I've read by her, and enjoy her quips on Twitter. I'd love to see her at a reading some day. I'm hoping to read Maine soon.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!