Smith College, the largest of the Seven Sisters, is one of the most prominent universities in the United States that doesn’t admit men. For everyone wondering about the impact of the single-sex policy on feminism, transgender issues, lesbian behavior and orientation, dating, and the aspirations of graduates, J. Courtney Sullivan has produced the definitive fictionalized anthropological study in her first novel, Commencement. Fortunately, however, the book isn’t a breathless exposé. Following four hallmates who become best friends through their Smith years and then through four years of transition, Sullivan produces a page-turner about the personal implications of an unavoidably political education.
Tucked into former servants’ quarters at the end of a Franklin King House hallway, Sally (an heiress whose mother just died), Bree (a Savannah beauty, already engaged), April (a radical itching to save womankind from mankind), and Celia (a Catholic schoolgirl with literary aspirations) form an unlikely alliance. As they change and experiment during their undergraduate years, Bree’s love affair with a lesbian co-worker, Sally’s secret dalliance with a professor, and April’s dedication to a controversial Smith alum who makes documentaries about women’s exploitation cause the most tension. Yet it’s Sally’s wedding three years after graduation that strains their relationship to the breaking point; Celia, Bree, and April can’t understand her transformation into a traditional homemaker. As Bree struggles with her long-term same-sex relationship and Celia plays peacemaker, the friends are rocked when April suddenly disappears while working undercover among prostitutes in Atlanta.
In the final chapter, Sullivan almost destroys the goodwill built up through 300 pages of lively characterization and careful plotting. She resolves the April crisis in a way that strains credulity and highlights an artificial strategy of withholding information—an anomaly in this refreshingly naturalistic book. But such is the accomplishment of those first 300 pages—avoiding chick-lit clichés, creating a complex picture of frequently oversimplified sexual and political choices, and forging identification with a diverse group of fully-faceted characters—that they linger far longer than the unfortunate ending. Commencement is much more than a novel about academia or young women. It’s a thoughtful, engrossing study in lives transformed and relationships realigned, full of details and dilemmas that speak to a broad audience.