J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement is a less accomplished version of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and it has all the narrative tension of an overcooked noodle. It shoots for modern-day Jane Austen and hits something closer to the chick-lit bulls-eye. I noted this to my girlfriend, who said that she could’ve told me it was chick-lit based on its teal dust jacket. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case apparently my principles apparently wouldn’t have mattered.
The writing in Commencement isn’t bad, but it also isn’t good; I’m searching through pages, looking for a representative quote, or something that’s at least stylistically unusual enough to merit consideration and am finding… nothing. The prose conveys information effectively but without any pizzaz; it is what James Wood might call an efficient literary/commercial novel, having absorbed a few conventions of modernism while retaining a passionate eye and penchant for understatement. Wood says that “There is a familiar American simplicity, for instance, which is Puritan and colloquial in origin, ‘a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials,’ as Marilynne Robinson has it in her novel Gilead.” Sullivan doesn’t have that. She works for the New York Times, which might explain why Commencement reads like a long piece for the Sunday Styles or one of the other less rigorous sections.
I read Commencement based on a mostly positive review in the same paper. It says, for example, that “Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world.” Outside of the Mormon church and some university Women’s Studies departments, I can’t imagine what those “certain quarters” might be. In an age of Sex and the City and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It),” taboos aren’t very strong. One notable thing about the review is that while it comments extensively on the novel’s social content, it says virtually nothing about its style or prose. Perhaps that’s because the reviewer drew a blank, just as I did, and therefore fell back on sociology when aesthetics failed to rouse any feeling whatsoever.