Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex
Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.
Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”
J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.
Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”
Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”
Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”
Editor: Jenny Jackson
Published: June 2009
Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.