Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: Commencement

Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan.
From Publisher's Weekly: It isn't quite love at first sight when Celia, Sally, Bree and April meet as first-year hall mates at Smith College in the late 1990s. Sally, whose mother has just died, is too steeped in grief to think about making new friends, and April's radical politics rub against Celia and Bree's more conventional leanings. But as the girls try out their first days of independence together, the group forms an intense bond that grows stronger throughout their college years and is put to the test after graduation. Even as the young women try to support each other through the trials of their early twenties, various milestones—Sally's engagement, Bree's anomalous girlfriend, April's activist career—only seem to breed disagreement. Things come to a head the night before Sally's wedding, when an argument leaves the friends seething and silent; but before long, the women begin to suspect that life without one another might be harder than they thought. Sullivan's novel quickly endears the reader to her cast, though the book never achieves the heft Sullivan seems to be striving for.

Confession time: I tend to be pretty picky with my chick flicks/chick lit selections, because oftentimes I find them too wimpy. If I'm going to invest time in a movie/novel, I don't want to feel my intelligence insulted. I want to go on adventures with characters that are strong and interesting. And while I enjoy goofy girly-adventures, I don't want to laugh at their expense: I want to be laughing with them, not at them.

When I first heard about Commencement, I heard it was a grown-up beach read. A mature chick-lit novel. A mature, good chick-lit novel. I was intrigued, especially since it covers the stories of women who are in college (like me! Well, not anymore... One Happy Kat's officially One-Excited/Terrified-Trojan-Alumna-Kat, lol!), but didn't get around to reading it until I found it for sale on the Amazon Kindle store ($3.99! Yay sales!!), enjoyed the sample, and bought the book. Let me tell you--it was a $3.99 well spent.

The women in Commencement are strong and independent. It's the story of a sisterhood. In a way, it kind of reminded me of a grown-up version of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants story, but with more mature drama. (Side note: after reading this, I want to read Sisterhood Everlasting--the finale of the Traveling Pants series). The four women are all distinct, with unique stories and points of view. They fight, they laugh, they change. The book's set partially at Smith College, and it was amusing to re-live some of the college experience through the book. Not that USC's anything like Smith, but it was still a hoot! For the most part, there isn't one central plot that the book centers around. Instead it tells stories of all four women, and how their stories intersect. Sometimes that format is distracting, but the structure of Commencement was really well done.

I'm not doing a good job of explaining how much I enjoyed this book, but let's put it this way: I finished it in 3 busy days, refusing to read anything else. The book was well-written and completely engrossing. The characters were interesting and honest. They weren't perfect, but I understood why they made the choices they did. I felt like I was part of this circle of friends and I cared about all four of them, even when they did things that drove me crazy!

My only quibble is the third-person voice used to write the book. Sometimes I got confused as to which character was talking. She covers all four women in rotating POVs, always in a third-voice tone, and the characters sometimes got muddled. If I think about it, I remember exactly what makes Bree, Sally, and Celia distinct. But their distinctions weren't always apparent in the writing of the chapters. April was the exception, being the iconic liberal of the book. She was always distinct. The other women--sometimes, not so much. But this minor quibble really didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book! Like I said, I really enjoyed it!

Also, one last confession: one of the twists? I kind of called it. Or rather, I thought it might happen, then didn't, then might...? Not going to tell you what the twist was or when it was, because I don't want to spoil it for you, but talk to me if you read it and I'll tell you which one I figured out.

Final grade: A-

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