Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College. Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic. Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand. Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor. Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for. Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college. It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues. Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.
What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation. Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college. This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future. After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year. The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace. It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood. It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read. However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.
First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse. They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person. Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea. Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now. Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.
The book has a real GLBTQ problem. One of the characters has two relationships. One is with a man and one with a woman. She is happy in both and attracted to both. She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well. Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book. The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her. She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian. The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend. It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual. This is why she is uncomfortable with the label. But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia. The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is. It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.
The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss. It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic. Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship. Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.
Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read. However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar. Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book. The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers. Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending. For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.
3 out of 5 stars