11 July 2009

Back to school with J. Courtney Sullivan

It's been a few weeks since I finished Courtney Sullivan's debut novel COMMENCEMENT and I'm still not sure what I exactly want to say about it. Having read the positive-to-glowing reviews it was garnering before I started (I was hoping to use it for Talk of the Town, but it didn't work out), I wondered if they couldn't be attributed to rosy nostalgia -- most professional reviewers of the book being slightly more removed from their college years than I, memory having plucked the bugs off the lettuce of their salad days.

But the depiction of college is the truest thing about this book -- the petty squabbles that dominate campus, the random encounters occasioned by living with your friends, the myopia and the wonder. It's not hard to see why graduates of Smith College, where the book is set (and from where Sullivan graduated), have embraced the book, which I'm told uses real buildings and locations to orient its characters. While not all of the experiences described are positive, it's only out in the real world that the messes can no longer be contained.

COMMENCEMENT follows four Smith classmates reuniting for a wedding on campus four years after graduation. (One character even compares her first year after graduating to "freshman year of life," and so on.) Narrated in turn by each of the women -- the Southern-belle-turned-lesbian, the radical political activist, the nonprofit exec turned young newlywed and, of course, the perpetually single New York City publishing assistant -- the book looks back at their college memories and forward as they struggle with jobs they dislike, relationships moving to new places and milestones looming dangerously close.

The most direct reference point for the novel is THE GROUP, Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel about conflict and conformity among eight women graduating from Vassar in the '30s, but I found myself thinking more about Rona Jaffe's little read 1958 novel THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, about a group of women who meet in a New York City typing pool. Despite being set in the mom-and-pop '50s the novel feels somehow ahead of its time in its approach to ambition -- the women come to New York against their parents' wishes and, once employed, don't seem in that big a hurry to abandon their charming apartments and married lovers.

COMMENCEMENT's characters, coming of age when the quarterlife crisis was invented, must all have one, but none of them are particularly ambitious. That's not the only thing that made it feel slightly behind the times, but it didn't help. Its women are types, not necessarily clich├ęs, but they still ran together in narrative voice to the extent that I had trouble telling them apart, although the girls emphasize among themselves how different they are and how much they've grown apart.

This presents a pretty serious narrative problem when the women reunite in the middle of the book for the wedding, and then after when something happens that would not be out of place in THE GROUP on the melodramatic scale. (A lot of reviews spoil this bit; suffice to say, one character gets into a situation which causes the others to reconnect on very short notice.) The differences is that in THE GROUP it would be over in two chapters, swept off to make room for the next dilemma, and here it consumes the novel. Just as it's about to tip into tedium, this plot strand is resolved in a way that I found, frankly, sadistic. It didn't completely drain my goodwill from the things I liked about it, but it made me wish I had skipped that chapter, and maybe a few of those before.

I'm still glad I read COMMENCEMENT because the combination of heiress-to-50s-career-girls and modern-fiction-set-on-a-campus was enough to pique my interest as it may yours. But if you're going to read it, I'm assigning you THE BEST OF EVERYTHING as a companion piece.


Wade Garrett said...

You just wrote "memory having plucked the bugs off the lettuce of their salad days," and it was awesome.

Ellen said...

Why thank you!