Notes & Queeries is a monthly column that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement, begins as Celia, Bree, April and Sally — four 26-year-old Smith College alumnae — gather together for Sally’s wedding. These four women met during their first year at college, when they all lived in the same hallway in King House, their dorm. Though several of them kissed other girls in college (this is Smith, after all), only one winds up in a long-term relationship with another woman.
Don’t let those statistics dissuade you from reading the book, though; I can say flat out that this book is the queerest mainstream novel I’ve read in a long time. And by queer, I really mean queer — Commencement goes beyond coming-out stories and also tackles feminist politics and transgender rights. All of that is being packaged by its publisher, Knopf, in a Tiffany-blue book cover that sweetly sings, “Chick lit for educated ladies!”
I first heard about Commencement in a New York Times article that described it as “one of this year’s most inviting summer novels.” I immediately emailed my college friends to tell them about it. One of them responded somewhat drily, “It sounds like perfect beach reading — for us!”
I didn’t go to Smith, but I did go to a women’s college — Wellesley — and for the first time ever in my reading experience, Commencement allowed me to read about a group of characters who could have been carbon copies, just slightly smudged, of myself and my own friends.
Any discussion of women’s colleges and their close friendship circles can sometimes smack of self-satisfaction and elite privilege.
Those stereotypes exist for a reason, but what I know is this: I was one of the most socially awkward 18-year-olds to walk the planet. Everyone may think this about herself, but I guarantee you that in my case, it was the truth. My college friends — who came from a variety of different backgrounds, not all wealthy — are the best prize I ever got for going to Wellesley.
Whatever kind of privilege the college gave me, it paled in comparison to the love and support my friends have shown to me over the years.
So there’s no way I could read Commencement with an unbiased eye. I opened the cover expecting to sink into a familiar, friendly landscape — and I did.
Each character in the book struggles in her own way with finding her place in the world. Celia, an aspiring novelist, works for a publisher in New York while navigating the murky (and often drunken) waters of the Manhattan dating scene. April is a radical feminist activist who makes guerilla-style documentaries about the exploitation of women. Sally, whose mother died just before she began college, has an affair with her much older professor while she is an undergrad, but also becomes the first to marry a truly nice guy.
And Bree — well, Bree is the one I’m interested in. Though she comes to Smith as a proper Southern belle, already engaged to her high school sweetheart, college quickly changes her. She breaks it off with her fiance and soon falls in love with Lara, an Asian-American soccer player and fellow Smith student. (Incidentally, Lara was definitely my favorite character, even though she was peripheral for most of the book.)
Bree believes that she is only a SLUG — a Smith Lesbian Until Graduation. But four years after graduation, Bree and Lara are still together, battling their way through a relationship hampered by homophobia. Bree’s family won’t accept their daughter’s lesbian relationship, and Bree herself clings to the belief that she’s straight, even after living with Lara for four years in San Francisco.
I admit I found Bree’s denial about her sexual orientation a bit difficult to believe, simply because Commencement paints Smith as such an incredibly queer place.
When the girls first arrive at their dorm, they are informed that showering with your girlfriend is not allowed between 8 and 10 a.m.: “Celia wondered if this was just a seniority tactic — they’d all heard the lore about Smith lesbians, but was girl-on-girl shower sex really such an issue that it necessitated a house rule?”
The showers don’t come up again in Commencement, but the mention of them sets the stage for chapters in which the characters blithely attend Smith parties in which making out with other girls certainly has nothing to do with titillating men — because there aren’t any.
Sullivan writes: “It was as if they were all playing at being gay, though they knew it was only a pose. Or perhaps some of them were trying it on for real.”
Trying on different identities — lesbian, feminist, writer, wife — this is what the characters in Commencement do.
They’re caught up in the messy world of 20-somethings everywhere. Decisions must be made about careers (how much of oneself can be invested in a job?), relationships (which ones matter the most?), and self (who am I, anyway?).