There is a curious thing that happens to nearly all of us in the haze of our post-college years, and that is this: we anticipate the prospect of becoming honest-to-God adults with both heady excitement and unfathomable dread. Dread because we know, wisely, that once we cross this threshold, we cannot go back; there is no sleeping in past eleven, no immature antics that can still be written off to childhood, no phoning our parents when the checkbook hits zero. Excitement because it is such a relief to evolve into something bigger than we were before, to embrace the world as ready, steady grown-ups. And J. Courtney Sullivan, via her debut novel, Commencement, explores these very complexities and growing pains of leaving behind our adolescences and surrendering to adulthood.
As I followed the intertwining paths of her four protagonists, each written honestly and tenderly, I couldn’t help but recall my own tangled path toward adulthood, the missteps, the right steps, the paths that have lead to a content life. And this is what the very best fiction does: it draws you in, resonating, asking you to reflect not just on the characters, but yourself. There is Celia, who can’t get unstuck from her rut; there is April, whose convictions threaten to overshadow the rest of her life; there is Bree, who faces a choice between her happiness and that of her family’s; and there is Sally, who is taping herself back together after the loss of her mother who held her family together.
The four of them, united as freshmen at Smith, slowly bond to form their own family, and like even the best of families, they find themselves both dependent and also fractured at various points in their lives. Sullivan does a fabulous job steering the quartet through realistic, life-changing events, events that so many of us have experienced in these growing years that usher us into our thirties. She never loses control of the plots, never lets the characters spill into something false or untrue. An unplanned pregnancy, a dead-end job, a relationship that might be worth salvaging, but who really knows how or if?
What I enjoyed most about Commencement, and there were many things—the smart writing, the laugh-out-loud dialogue, the ending that I truly couldn’t predict—was that it reminded me so much of how much I loved those years of my life. And how much I loved my friends who I have been fortunate enough to have along in my journey. I found myself rewinding through memories, sifting through old pictures, smiling as I was reading because Sullivan managed to transport me. She created indelible characters who became part of my life, and thus, allowed my life to become part of her book. This is also what the best fiction does, it pulls you along for the ride as if you were there, as if you were in between the pages, as if Sullivan knew my own story and made it hers. —Allison Winn Scotch