28 July 2011

Starting off on the Right Foot

To all those Americans who complain about or wonder at the obscure vocabulary found at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I would offer in return the word commencement. It took quite a few US college movies before I realised that commencement, somewhat counter-intuitively, is something in which you participate at the end of your degree rather than the beginning. Perhaps its etymology derives from the fact that those who have graduated are just about to commence the rest of their lives. The OED claims it was originally a Briticism anyway:
The action of taking the full degree of Master or Doctor; esp. at Cambridge, Dublin, and the American universities, the great ceremony when these (also, in some cases other degrees, esp. in U.S., that of Bachelor) are conferred, at the end of the academical year.
This is a rather long-winded way of introducing a book called Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan. I read about Sullivan's latest novel, Maine, which sounded like my kind of novel but as it hasn't been published in the UK yet, I sought its predecessor. I knew from the blurb that Sullivan's first novel would be even more of my kind of novel and sure enough, it was. OK, superficially, the description makes it sound as though it might be Sex and the City: The College Years:
Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn't have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother's rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiance she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a "Riot: Don't Diet" T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.
I never watched SATC but even I could see that Celia, the writer who loves to observe other people, is a Carrie-a-like and hard-working, career-focused Sally turns out to be a lot like Miranda. But Commencement is really much more like Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, though. At the start of the novel, four years after their commencement graduation, April, Bree and Celia are returning to their college for the wedding of their best friend Sally. They were all very close while at university but since then, life has intervened. The point of view in each of the sections alternates through each of the girls and we learn that they are a little nervous, as well as excited, about their reunion with their college--and with one another. They often jump back to reflect on their time time together at college and on some of the important events of their friendship.

Stuck in the worst four rooms in one of the nicest dorms in the all girls' Smith College, the four girls meet on their first day and despite their differences, they soon become the best of friends (now this sounds like Sweet Valley High, but that is an unfair comparison). Irish-Catholic Celia, who comes from a big Boston family, chose to go to Smith because it was the best school she got into. She feels like she's the most normal person at Smith and mourns the lack of men on campus. After college, she yearns to be a writer but is stuck working for a crappy publisher and has to make do with writing about her graduating class for the alumnae magazine. While dying to meet a nice bloke, she also wishes that she was still the most important woman in Bree's life.

Beautiful, sensitive Southern Belle Bree's mother attended Smith and wanted her daughter to do the same even though Bree's fiancé chose to go to school back in Georgia. The long-distance relationship doesn't work out but although her parents can forgive her calling off the wedding, they can't forgive her falling for someone completely unexpected, i.e. a woman, namely Lara, who is unlike anyone she has ever met. To Celia and Sally's wonder, Lara follows Bree to Stanford, where Bree completes her law degree. But she isn't sure whether she can give up the rest of her life--especially her disapproving family to whom she has always been close--for a life she still isn't convinced is really her.

Sally almost gave up her place at Smith after her beloved mother was discovered to have cancer and died very suddenly but does decide to go in the end. She aces all of her premed classes but is having trouble with her token poetry class until her much older poetry professor effectively promises her a good grade if she comes and tidies up his office while he reads Auden and Keats to her, quoting selectively from them to give her the impression his wife is dead rather than teaching on campus. Their affair continues for three years until she graduates and he breaks it off. She doesn't think she'll find anyone but then, after graduation, she meets Jake, randomly in a coffee shop and then, suddenly, they are engaged and then married, with more big decisions to come. Sally often acts as the mother of the group but she worries her friends will disapprove of Jake because he's too straightforward--historically, they've all opted for complicated, heart-wrenching and inappropriate relationships.

Tough, radical April wanted to go to a college that wasn't completely dominated by traditional patriarchal values. She's really asexual rather than homosexual and doesn't have a lot of time for men. She works two jobs to pay her way through university, getting no financial support from her mother (and she never knew her father). She finds her niche at Smith and becomes one of the most popular women, leading many feminist movements and organising countless rallies and events. But after graduation, her activism leads her to lose her way and she ends up living with and working for a woman who ends up putting April's life at risk as they campaign to raise awareness for women's rights and issues like the kidnapping of women into the sex trade.

April's sections are, objectively, the most interesting, but subjectively, I found myself rushing through to get back to the other girls' chapters, perhaps because I can relate to them more (I'm probably a cross between Sally and Celia, of course). I liked the back-and-forth, achronological structure, with the narrative sometimes jumping back to an event we've already seen but looking at it from the perspective of one of the other girls, and certain throwaway comments taking on a much greater significance later on when we understand them better. I can definitely sympathise with some of the problems the girls face at a single-sex college, having gone to an all-girls' secondary school. I would never have chosen to go to an all-girls' college (not even if I had to choose between Newnham, say, or a non-Oxbridge university), partly because after seven years of female company, I was fed up of having to make the effort to meet guys.

Commencement is a well-written, neatly structured and convincing account of the college experience and friendship of four very different women. All four characters have their flaws but, without wishing to sound too trite, in each other, they gained something potentially far more valuable than their degree during their time at Smith. Lucky them--but I still wouldn't switch my co-ed gaggle of university friends for a close, all-female cohort.

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