Every time I entered a bookstore for much of the summer, J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel called to me from the new releases display. Recently, I finally gave in and got my hands on it (with the help of my library, where the abundance of readily available free books will never cease to amaze me) to see what kind of wisdom a book seemingly about commencement could impart upon a recent college graduate. It proved enlightening in more ways than one, as I found myself both identifying with its characters in familiar settings while being challenged to think about where to take my education from here and what it means to be a woman today.
The story of four close friends from Smith College, Commencement chronicles, often nonlinearly, the progression of the girls’ friendship from the start of their freshman year through their mid-twenties. I was, before I read the novel, pretty unfamiliar with Smith and its customs and hierarchies. But Sullivan paints such a vivid picture of the college – I imagine it must be a unique experience for an actual Smithie to read the book – that, upon its end, I almost felt a connection to the school. I think, however, this connection comes less from Smith itself than it does from Sullivan’s main theme: modern feminism. (Disclaimer: I have never actually studied feminist schools of thought and am speaking purely from the perspective of a female, so take this how you will.)
What the book is really about, I think, is the feminist movement in its many forms and divisions in modern America, and what this current generation of young women (myself included) can and are doing with our abundance of choices. Just as every woman is a unique representation of modern feminism in the real world, each of the girls in the book is a different kind of feminist, from the apathetic Southern belle to the radical anti-men activist. At times these different takes on feminism in the book could be isolating and even infuriating; there were times in the book in which I actively disliked some of the characters and was angered by their choices and opinions. I think, however, it was necessary for Sullivan to make her characters and their actions so polarizing, as they thus represented all sides and extremes of the debate (feminism is, after all, still a polarizing issue). All of this discussion of feminism and its place in America is only that – discussion – until we see it put onto action. As the four girls leave Smith for the ‘real world’ they each take their vastly different meanings of feminism to become very different kinds women, thus calling for reflection on the tangible effects of their kind of education and feminist thinking.
The book does not go on to explore what kind feminist idea makes a ‘successful’ woman - I don't think this is the point of the book. For all its big ideas and meditations on modern society, the heart of the novel is in the friendships of the four girls. I may not have gone to Smith, but I did go to a lovely all-girls high school and fully appreciate the unique friendships that come out of all-girls education. Still, it wasn’t the idea of Smith or any kind of all-girls school that made Commencement powerful for me. It was the exploration and admiration of the kinds of friendships that women share.