I stole the title of this post from J. Courtney Sullivan's debut novel Commencement, an engrossing yarn of a book which twists together the collegiate and post-collegiate stories of four Smith College graduates. In doing so, the book illumines and amplifies the double resonance of its title, exploring the bewildering interconnection between beginnings and endings in college life and beyond.
It also works as straight-up Chick Lit, albeit Chick Lit largely absent that perennial standby of the genre, men. Or perhaps Commencement is Chick Lit distilled to its essence, and men are, and always have been, rhetorical flourishes in a genre that fundamentally speaks to women's conceptions of their lives.
The fluidity of these conceptions -the assumption that they are both dynamic and interpersonally mediated- is one of Chick Lit's central conceits. Strip away the bad dates and the Christian Louboutins and the brooding ad execs with inexplicably rent controlled pre-war apartments, and what you'll find is a find a bunch of women changing their lives through chatter.
It's a vision both seductive and off-putting. Do women, in this post-feminist age, really still need to view men as trophies or predators or anything other than flawed and complex human beings? Does the insular female world described in Commencement and other novels presume that men are either precursors to, or rewards for, transformation, rather than partners in a woman's process of self-actualization?
The lure of women's colleges, and more broadly of women's friendships, is that you are evaluated and cherished as a whole person, rather than merely as a potential wife or mother or fuck. Perhaps society has moved beyond when Harry met Sally and informed her that men and women can't be friends "because the sex part always gets in the way." But why risk it, Chick Lit asks, when you can stay up all night talking to your girlfriends? In Commencement, the wedding of one of the main characters is one of the novel's major events not because it binds her to a man for the rest of her life, but because it temporarily reunites her with her bridesmaids.
Yet, I wonder if women's issues aren't Commencement's red herring. It's true Smith is a women's college, but perhaps the second word of the pair deserves as much emphasis as the first. In these days of increasing specialization and ever-lengthening work weeks, when unfocused resumes are liabilities and dilettantes are scorned, the undergraduate years are the last time of life when both men and women are encouraged to diversify, to try new things, to be whole and variegated human beings.
Commencement may mark the start of "real life," but all too frequently that life proves to be narrow, cramped, and breathless. It's no wonder the women of Commencement cling to a time in their lives when The End was just the beginning.