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By (August 1, 2009) No Comment


By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf, 2009

I’ve sometimes thought the most radical thing Virginia Woolf ever wrote, for all her experimentalism and pacifism, was this seemingly banal passage near the end of A Room of One’s Own:

And again I am reminded by dipping into newspapers and novels and biographies that when a woman speaks to women she should have something very unpleasant up her sleeve. Women are hard on women. Women dislike women. Women – but are you not sick to death of the word? . . What can I think of? The truth is, I often like women. I like their unconventionality. I like their subtlety. I like their anonymity. But I must not run on in this way. That cupboard there, – you say it holds clean table-napkins only; but what if Sir Archibald Bodkin were concealed among them?

Years later, while almost everything about women’s lives in wealthy countries has changed, a whiff of scandal still adheres to the notion that women often like one another. Ann Patchett, author of the powerful memoir Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, wrote in The Atlantic about her experiences when the book was selected as the common reading at Clemson University. Protesters deemed the book pornographic, one student asked her how often she cheated on her husband, and articles talked about the book’s “implied lesbian relationship” – because what else could explain the level of devotion Patchett showed to Grealy, in spite of difficulties brought about by her illness and addiction?

Commencement, a debut novel by J. Courtney Sullivan, is a book for women who like women – at least, it wants to be. It tells the story of four recent graduates of Smith College, with sections devoted to each. Sullivan aims to pay tribute to a school that inspires fierce loyalty by its graduates and bewilderment by outsiders, to convey the hold it has on people, to suggest the ways that living in an all-female environment of over 2,000 – something few women ever experience – can alter a woman’s perceptions in lasting ways. The novel’s men are sketchy figures in the background – but then, that’s part of the point. If word gets out that Sir Archibald might be listening, everything would be different.

Without Smith, there would be no Commencement. Smithies (including, in the name of full disclosure, this reviewer) will enjoy the pull of recognition, as Sullivan outlines the idylls of campus life and quaint traditions like Mountain Day. Unfortunately, the heart of the novel – the women themselves – is less convincing than the campus atmosphere. Maria Russo’s New York Times review says that the novel “excels at close-up portraits” and that each of the four characters has “a believable particular personality and background.” But it’s hard to see what Russo could mean, unless continually mentioning that Celia is a lapsed Catholic from Boston and attributing entirely normal actions to “Catholic guilt” count as character development. In her post-Smith years, Celia works in publishing, drinks too much, and sleeps around. Sally gets engaged, has money, and lives in a house with fancy countertops. April has a negligent hippie mother and has never met her father. She’s attracted to men but is so angry she can’t date them (except for a brief fling with a sweet Hampshire Trotskyite), but she somehow has the wherewithal to do life-threatening activist work. In a particularly sour note given the novel’s overall cheeriness, members of Smith’s large lesbian community are regularly described in crude and unflattering ways, while the one long-term lesbian relationship in the book involves a lot of comments about how beautiful and skinny the two women are, and with reminders that one of them, the Southern belle Bree, isn’t really a lesbian. The Times piece says the novel offers “a witty take on the stereotypes of women’s colleges” – but surely that suggests doing something other than invoking them?

Stereotypes can be many things, but when it comes to women they are often a kind of consumerist shorthand: show me the clothes, add in the names of the music listened to, whether or not makeup is worn, and I’ll show you the woman. It’s particularly insidious when it comes to female friendships: how many times have we seen these outlined versions of what we’re supposed to be to one another: the beauty, the quiet one, the tomboy, the slut? Mary McCarthy, in the classic novel The Group, (concerning the fortunes of the Vassar Class of ’33), offers a different take on the notion of girls as ‘types’:

“You used to like her best, Lakey. I think you still do, in your heart of hearts.” Lakey smiled at the cliché. “Perhaps,” she said and lit a cigarette. She was fond, at present, of girls like Dottie who ran true to type, like paintings well within a style or a tradition. The girls she chose to collect were mystified, usually, by what she saw in them; they humbly perceived that they were very different from her. In private, they often discussed her, like toys discussing their owner, and concluded that she was awfully inhuman. But this increased their respect for her.

J. Courtney Sullivan; photo by Jerry Bauer

Lakey, admired and feared, sees the game for what it is, and sets out to master it. Sullivan wants to do the same, is smart enough to recognize the problem, but to address it she resorts one of writing students’ laziest tricks: drawing attention to her own clichés, as if this might diffuse them. In telling the story of Sally’s affair with (you guessed it) her poetry professor, she notes that her friends “had hours and hours to talk about that, to advise her against it and to tell her what a terrible cliché it was.” On the next page the professor is described as “looking like a professor in a school play.” (He wears cardigans and doesn’t shave enough, but she probably didn’t need to tell you that.) On her website, Sullivan notes,

I actually feel slightly bad about Bill’s portrayal, because the vast majority of my Smith professors were men, and all of them were extremely decent, thoughtful, genuine teachers, who cared deeply about shaping young minds and never made an improper move, ever.

So why are professors (and the classroom, for that matter) entirely absent from the book apart from him? And if she couldn’t resist the affair story line, couldn’t she at least have mixed it up – a chemist, perhaps, or at least a snappy dresser?

The comparison to McCarthy may be somewhat unfair, but it’s far from coincidental. The Group begins by describing the wedding, “one week after Commencement, when Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar ’33, the first of her class to run around the table at the Class Day dinner, was married to Harald Peterson, Reed ’27.” Commencement begins with a note from the Smith Alumnae Quarterly announcing the wedding of Sally Werner (’02). Moreover, on the dusk jacket no less a luminary than Gloria Steinem (Smith Class of ’56) writes,

Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.

Aside from the flatness of Sullivan’s prose, the divergences between the two novels are revealing, if not for reasons readers might expect. McCarthy’s women graduated thirty years before The Feminine Mystique detailed the backlash that led Betty Friedan to single out the educators who designed curriculums to help women “adjust” to their role as homemakers. (Friedan, Smith class of ‘42, famously found inspiration for her breakthrough best-seller in a fifteen-year reunion questionnaire). Entering the world of the Depression, McCarthy’s graduates follow classic Seven Sisters paths into publishing, teaching, and graduate school in art, but they also move on to work in a settlement house, a lab, and the National Recovery Administration. (The Seven Sisters were once a kind of female counterpoint to the Ivy League, notable for prestigious academics even during periods when most graduates did not enter the paid workforce. Today, McCarthy’s Vassar is coed and Radcliffe has been integrated into Harvard, but Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke and Barnard continue much of the tradition, turning out a disproportionate number of notable graduates in male-dominated fields.) Even Pokey Prothero, whose nickname suggests her relative status in the group, “was getting her pilot’s license so as to be able to commute three days a week to Cornell Agricultural school.” Nor does Sullivan have anything on McCarthy when it comes to sexual frankness: here too, brand names stand in for character: “But Bill ran his hands over her, peeling off first her pink sweater and then her tank top, as though they were layers of delicate tissue paper, rather than cotton blends from Banana Republic.” Compare this to the chilling scene in which Dottie Renfrew waits for Dick in the park, pessary box in hand – a scene that retains its power not only through its treatment of repression but through its unsentimental but sympathetic specificity.

But while McCarthy’s mode is light and satirical, Sullivan has no distance from her characters. There’s little of the wit that might make the novel work as a light riff on contemporary mores. Of course, one could argue that the problem for Sullivan is precisely the success of those in-between generations. However affluent, McCarthy’s characters have their fortunes shaped by social convention and expectation, while Sullivan’s face only the familiar angst of infinite choices: a dilemma more difficult to render in realist narrative. It’s an interpretation Sullivan herself endorses near the novel’s end: “Sally had always said that it was the modern woman’s joy and her burden to be given choices, endless choices. But she never said anything about what would happen if one of them made the wrong choice.”

But this is a cop-out: no more but no less than when invoked in countless angsty male-centric coming-of-age novels to avoid figuring out ways of illuminating what is at stake in contemporary experience. Luckily, any number of writers who recognize this, from Patchett to Margaret Atwood and Mary Gaitskill, have taken on the theme of female friendship – good news not only for women who sometimes like women, but for readers of both genders.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray.

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