J. Courtney Sullivan graduates from chick lit with 'Commencement'


Celia, one of “Commencement”’s four heroines, also comes from an Irish Catholic background and has drawn comparisons to the author. While Sullivan insists, “There are parts of me and parts of all my friends in each character,” she agrees that Celia’s Irishness has plenty to do with her role as the glue that holds the girls together past college graduation and well into the beginnings of their adult lives. “My first week at Smith, I had made a plan to go to a movie with some girl on my hall, and I just felt like I didn’t want anyone else to be left out. I just dreaded the thought of being left out in this brand new group of women and so by the time this girl had gotten her coat on, I had invited twenty more people. And she was kind of like, why? But I just wanted everyone to feel included. I think you’re right, I think it probably does come partly from being Irish, and coming from, as Celia does, and as I do, a very traditional, big Irish Catholic family. I’ve been doing readings lately and reading from Celia’s first chapter, the first chapter of the book, and she says all these things about how she just wanted to have a weekend to herself, where she wasn’t obliged to do some family thing. But then when she gets to Smith she’s like, ‘So what do I do now?’ And I definitely had that as well when I grew up—and still, my family in Boston gets together every single weekend for some sort of communion or birthday party or whatever. They go to every BC baseball game. It’s a community unto itself. So I think when you come from a background like that you’re looking for community everywhere. Also, I’m the oldest in my family, nine years older than my sister but also older than all of our cousins, who are even younger than she is. So I definitely grew up with a bit of that nurturing mother hen sort of thing going on.”

The relationship between mothers and daughters is an element at the core of this novel, as each character struggles between adolescence and adulthood, reliance and independence. “That was something that was looming large in my thoughts when I was writing this book, and I just think that the role of mothers in their daughters’ lives is obviously so enormous for good and bad. I still talk to my mother every day. I have friends who think that is absolutely bonkers and talk to their mothers every other week for five minutes. I call my mother every day for things: ‘How long do you cook an egg for?’ Or, ‘Can you remind me of our dentist’s phone number at home?’ The most ridiculous stuff, you know. So I do think that that first sort of female-to-female relationship is very interesting. It does sort of shape in some ways how you will go on and interact with other females in your life… and the mother’s approval is so strong, the desire for it is so strong, even when you’re an adult, even when you’re completely out of the house and separate.” Sullivan says that she has been lucky in that her parents have entirely encouraged her writing, even when it hits close to home. “My parents are exceptionally amazing and supportive and generous and comfortable because I’ve been writing about them for so long in different ways.”

Sullivan’s mother also impacted her experience of Catholicism, which inspired some details in the relationship between Celia and her own mother in “Commencement”. “In the neighborhood I grew up in, everyone was Catholic. Certainly everyone in my family was Catholic. And it was sort of understood that you would of course want to marry an Irish Catholic man, and I always really struggled with Catholicism, for many different reasons. But it’s weird because, like Celia does, I have held on especially to the Virgin Mary; my mother has always completely worshiped the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was almost like second fiddle to her, and we had the Virgin Mary statue in our yard and all of that. And my mother is forever giving me rosaries and this and that, just sticking them in my pocket or whatever. …That has really sunk in with me, so in any time of danger or stress or peril I always revert to saying a Hail Mary. Anytime I see an ambulance go by with the siren on, I say a Hail Mary. So it is a bit like blending the actual religion, which I don’t believe in many of the tenets of, with a kind of superstitious, female-centric—I mean, this very masculine religion and I take away the only feminine component there is.”

Sullivan is hard at work on two upcoming projects: a feminist anthology co-edited with Courtney Martin as well as a second novel. The novel, “about an Irish Catholic family from outside of Boston, follows three generations. All the characters who tell the story are women, but the oldest is the grandmother who’s in her mid-eighties, and then her daughters and daughter-in-law speak, they’re all about in their fifties, sixties, and then the granddaughters, who are in their thirties. It follows them over the course of a summer at their family beach house in Maine. All variety of horrible secrets are festering in every different segment of the family, and they all come to a head once everyone comes together at the end of the summer. … It deals a lot with religion and how Catholicism is dealt with by different members of the same family in many different ways.”