Smith Misses

college hall resized Smith MissesCommencement
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf, 320 pages, $24.95

One of the characters in J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel Commencement thinks of her first year out of college (a.k.a. the real world) as her freshman year of life. It’s one of those funny-’cause-it’s-truisms that most of us can relate to: It’s awfully hard to shake the foundations laid in those four germinal years.

Ms. Sullivan’s book revolves around four women who graduated from the elite, all-female Smith (class of ’02, gulp). There’s Celia, a fun-and-booze-loving Irish Catholic (the book opens with her waking up after a drunken one-night stand) who has moved to New York City to work in publishing; Bree, a Southern bombshell who surprises everyone by becoming entrenched in a long-term romance with a woman; Sally, a motherless millionaire who had an affair with a poetry professor back in school; and April, a strident feminist activist who becomes entangled in her dangerous work after graduation.

À la Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel The Group, Commencement begins with Sally’s wedding. As the four women reunite on campus, we flash back to their time in school together. Ms. Sullivan, who also graduated from Smith and currently works in The New York Times editorial department, is wickedly sharp in sending up some of the stereotypes, such as a first dorm meeting, with its discussion of dental dams and admonishments of not showering with one’s significant other during rush hour. (“It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?’”).

The book also takes pains to leave college behind and tackle some of the problems that women flung together from all over the country and from wildly different backgrounds find in keeping friendships together after the ivory tower (while Celia carouses in bars and flirts with a banker, Sally and her husband cook dinner and watch DVDs). Ms. Sullivan’s voice is funny and smart, and three of the four characters are complexly drawn, with distinct voices. Our only quibble was with activist April, whose life takes the book into an odd-feeling and somewhat ill-advised subplot involving human trafficking. But overall, a fun, fresh and sometimes insightful read!

Sara Vilkomerson is a reporter-editor at The Observer. She can be reached at svilkomerson@observer.com.