Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan, is a tale of female experience spliced four ways. Celia, April, Sally and Bree come from diverse backgrounds and befriend one another the way people often do in their first year of college: courtesy of dorm-room proximity. Enrolled at all-girls Smith, their college community is a singular one: it fuses gleeful summer camp girlishness with cerebral feminist awareness.
The book shifts between the four perspectives, charting how interpretations of selfhood and womanhood diverge and converge within the foursome. As they grow from teens to adults, the characters face the fact that the billowing idealism of their youth rarely translates to reality. It's the harsh lesson that recent graduates have to absorb — a lesson which readers can relate to all too well.
The female cloister of Smith heavily influences and heightens the analysis of gender roles and sexual orientation. Where other books often exacerbate clichés or stifle progressive attitudes about what it means to be a modern femme, here, women's issues are admirably woven throughout. And yet, the characters themselves, as embodiments of female power, can be somewhat disappointing. Among the quartet, some follow generic paths, and even those who don't seem to represent conceptions of womanhood, rather than existing as nuanced individual characters. The broad strokes, ostensibly trying to be more inclusive, end up alienating the reader.
Amid references to Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin, Sullivan herself never musters a truly radical point of view with her writing. Being cognizant of the complexities of womanhood and being critical and active against the sexism that still pervades daily life are important issues to promote and confront. There is no question that it is satisfying to see this articulated. However, Sullivan hasn't quite integrated these issues into a novel format: instead, doctrine and real life operate as disparate strands — which is a shame, because had they been melded together more craftily, the book might have really delivered something powerful.