Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secret of My Success: Commencement

Most college freshmen don't declare a major right away. I was not one of those freshmen. In fact, after orientation I declared two: communications and theatre. (Insert "useless and useless" jokes here, believe me, I've heard them all.) The former occurred because of a deal I struck with my parents: study something where it'll be possible for you to get a job. (Insert Dr. Hibbert "you'll find a job using your major in--communications? Oh, LORD!" joke here.)

The latter occurred because, well, I was obsessed with theatre. I wanted to be the next Christine Ebersole (who actually went to college next door to my high school. Not when I was IN said high school, but you get the picture). Besides having classes and rehearsals as a legitimate part of my schedule (rather than something I squeezed in between AP English and pre-calc), I salivated over hanging out with a host of fellow theatre geeks. I wanted to immerse myself hard-core and never come up for air.

This played out . . . to an extent. I did get a dual degree in theatre and communications, with a minor in Women's Studies. (I also got a full-time job after college, haters be damned.) I took directing, dramatic literature and dialects for credit, acted in some kickass shows (Three Sisters and West Side Story were two particular favorites), and met many wonderful people who shared my passion.

I also formed lasting relationships with a psych/communications major and a bio major. The former was my freshman roommate (we connected at orientation because everyone else in our group was annoying), the latter a girl who lived down the hall that we met on our way to dinner our first full night at school. The three of us lived together sophomore year. We've seen each other through boyfriends, bad jobs, and now, babies (well, one baby, but still). When I moved back to Chicago three years ago, I lived on one of their couches for a month--and she still missed me when I found my own place. We don't see each other constantly, but we make it a point to get together every few months for cheesecake (just like The Golden Girls marathons we watched together) and/or pizza (because we are Chicago chicks at heart, even though one of us now lives in the burbs).

And yet--other than a love for junk food and South Park, the three of us don't have much in common. We've taken wildly different paths, career and otherwise. Even junior and senior year in college, we didn't see nearly as much of each other as we did the first two years. So why has our little triumvirate stuck together not only through university, but through 99% of our twenties?

Which brings me to Commencement, an intelligent look at the postcollege lives of four buddies from Smith College. I didn't know this until I started reading, but the characters graduated from college the same year as my friends and I (ever since I was 11 and found out Macaulay Culkin was exactly my age, sharing the same birth year with celebrities and fictional characters makes me weirdly excited). Is Commencement the Great American Novel? Of course not. But if you are female, enjoyed Prep, and remember the wonderful complexities of the postcollege decade, it's pretty darn close.

Let's face it: even in our supposedly progressive age, there are very few intelligent novels concerning twentysomething women. For the most part, it's men and shoes, men and shoes, men and shoes, with a few tragic stories thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong, strong chick lit rocks: for example, the Shopaholic series is good, fluffy fun with a winning heroine. But what about the rest of us: smart, passionate twentysomething women who may have had a fulfilling college education, complete with developed ideals and true-blue pals, but still wonder what to be when we grow up? How come no one's writing about us? Finally, someone is.

And before anyone says, "oooh, problems of privileged white ladies, blah blah blah," let me quote a very wise friend: "just because others have worse problems, that doesn't make yours any less valid." And indeed, even within the hallowed halls of the all-female Smith, issues with family, sexuality and identity run rampant.

Short summary: it's the fall of 1998, and four first-years (Smith says NO to the term "freshmen") form an insta-bond as neighbors in what used to be the servants' quarters of their dorm. Celia is an Irish Catholic wannabe writer from Boston, Bree is a southern belle Smith legacy who's already engaged to her high school honey, Sally is sweet as pie even as she grieves the very recent and sudden death of her mother, and April is an alternagal from Chicago who balances a variety of protests and rallies with two part-time jobs to make ends meet. During their four years at Smith, they remain neighbors and best friends, while having college experiences that are typical--snacking on Oreos and vodka, sexual experimentation, streaking across the quad--and unique to their all-female institution, such as the first-week ritual where each dorm faces off in their underwear. (It's fun, not oppressive.) Four years after graduation (in what Bree calls their "senior year of life"), Sally is getting married on Smith's campus, and the far-flung foursome reunite with mixed results. Several months later, no one is speaking, and Sally's unexpected pregnancy sets off a chain of events both happy and tragic.

I. Loved. This. Book.

I've already talked about how educated young women have stories that stretch far beyond men and shoes, but hardly anyone's telling them. I also love how this book addresses the quarterlife crisis with grace, wit, and one phrase that pretty much sums it all up: these days, there are almost too many options. Not that I want to return to the old days, where I could be a nurse or teacher--before I quit to get married and have kids. That said, we live in a world (and economy) where a college graduate can do anything from fund a multi-million dollar enterprise while still living in the dorms, to wait tables while waiting for your big break, and everything in between. Very overwhelming. Also, even if you know exactly what you want to do and how to get there, it's not our parents' world, where a college degree automatically leads to a full-time job with a high salary. On the contrary: the majority of our generation have at least an undergraduate degree. In short, if you don't have connections or higher-ed credentials, you can be SOL in the postcollege world. Commencement does an excellent job with this inner struggle: when who you thought you would be at eighteen is so far from who you are at twenty-five, when to accept that, and when to make some changes and press on.

I also had yet to read a novel that so smoothly and thoroughly addressed the complexities of feminism. Nothing pisses me off more when pop culture stereotypes feminists as bull-dyke bitches with no sense of humor. Come on, it's 2009. Women shouldn't be afraid to call themselves feminists because of all the prejudicial baggage that comes with the word. I'm far from saying that ANYTHING a woman does is a feminist act, but the great thing about feminism is that it IS all-encompassing. The way I see it is this: do you want a world where both genders are equal in terms of pay, treatment, and opportunity? Congratulations, you're a feminist! In Commencement, the four women do encounter various incarnations of feminism at Smith and beyond, and struggle with their own personal ideologies. Is it anti-feminist to marry at 25? To put off medical school for a relationship? What about when a seemingly-nice guy insults you for your pride in your all-women alma mater? Look, I was once told to leave my Women's Studies TA experience OFF of my resume, so as not to alienate potential employers. (Didn't take the advice.) I identified with the protagonists' dilemmas.

Sexuality also plays a large role in Commencement. Two of the four main characters have undergone traumatic experiences by the time they reach twenty-five. Sadly, that goes right along with statistics. One character seeks solace in an ill-advised affair, and is still dealing with the ramifications years later. Another goes beyond same-sex experimentation, but wonders about the relationship's staying power outside the Smith bubble. Even with the most casual of intentions, sex is never just sex, and mistakes are made. Women's experiences with sex and relationships go WAY beyond your typical chick flick or Lifetime trauma porn of the week. Plus? Every woman has other things going on. Relationships and sex--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the just plain confusing--are a part of you, but not all you. Thank you, Ms. Sullivan, for illustrating that.

I read Commencement in about 30 hours. Granted, I'm a fast reader, but that's speedy even for me. Throughout, I laughed. I cried. I identified. I don't know if I want to call J. Courtney Sullivan the next Curtis Sittenfeld--I don't like calling anyone the next "anything," because it's too simplistic and reduces individuals to categories. However, as a writer, she's definitely worthy of your time, attention and support. Ladies (and gentlemen), more voices like hers need to be out there.

Let's make it happen.


  1. I enjoyed Commencement as well, Lauren, and I too read it extremely quickly. I wondered how true to life some of the stuff about Smith College was (I went to an all-girls high school and got pretty fed up with people presuming lesbianism was rampant, but then again, I don't have experience with a single-sex college.). I also felt the twist with April's story was a bit over the top for my tastes, but all in all this was an intriguing book, especially for our generation to read.

  2. Hi Ann, thanks for commenting! :)

    I could be wrong (I don't have the book with me now), but I believe that Sullivan herself is a Smithie.

    Having weathered school stereotypes myself (I wasn't at a single-sex high school, but it WAS Catholic, with all the "naughty girl" connotations that so weren't true), I will say that I found the experimentation aspect believable. I mean, it's an experimental age in an all-female environment--add alcohol into the mix (not as much of a factor in high school) and there you go. I mean, I know plenty of women who experimented at schools that were NOT single sex, so I can imagine how that might be amplified in a single-sex environment.

    April's story was...interesting, to say the least. I probably could have done without some of the more extreme aspects, because I found the rest of the girls equally compelling. (Except Sally, who annoyed me at times, though I mostly liked her too.)

  3. Ahh, this sounds good! And it will sound even better to Mr. Bryn, who has the tastes (I say this as a compliment) of a very bright college girl :D I wonder if it's available on CD? It sounds like something we might enjoy listening together in the car!

    Antii-feminist to marry at 25? Ha, I got married at 23 :)

  4. I gotta read this book now, thanks for posting about it!