Telling women's stories

JERRY BAUERCourtney Sullivan’s novel “Commencement’’ focuses on four Smith College graduates. JERRY BAUERCourtney Sullivan’s novel “Commencement’’ focuses on four Smith College graduates. (Jerry Bauer)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / June 20, 2009
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Courtney Sullivan’s first novel, “Commencement’’ (Knopf), is garnering rave reviews, and she’s getting queries from Hollywood. The book centers on four women who were suitemates at Smith College and delves into the complex choices young women face today. Like one of her main characters, Sullivan, 27, grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Milton, graduated from Smith, and moved to New York, where she is a researcher for columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times. She’ll read from her novel tomorrow at 3 p.m. at the Concord Bookshop and Monday at Barnes & Noble in Braintree at 7 p.m.

Q. Why did you decide to go to Smith, one of the few women’s schools remaining?

A. I went out there with my mom, and it was cold and rainy, and I thought, I don’t think so. But when I went back [to visit], I completely fell in love. The way the upperclasswomen seemed to be having such a blast and these friendships were so strong. I just thought, I want in on this.

Q. What was the impetus for the novel?

A. I was starting to move through my 20s and was watching my girlfriends from Smith, who are still ferociously close. But for the first time, we were doing different things. One of us at 25 was married and moving into the suburbs, another was dealing with family issues that none of us could imagine, another was taking off, career-wise. I wanted to explore those Smith days and see what happens to the Smith girls next.

Q. Many women of your generation cringe at the word “feminism.’’ Why is that?

A. It’s so upsetting. There are many young women who think feminism is irrelevant, that we don’t need it anymore. It’s mind-boggling to me, because of the extreme sexism that rages on in everyday life in our country.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m co-editing an anthology about the “click’’ moment, the moment you decided, “I’m a feminist.’’ So many answers were so surprising and unique that we decided to do an anthology of women in their 20s, 30s, even teens. We have everything from a girl who was inspired by the TV show “Saved by the Bell,’’ to a girl who went through school having [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and was treated very differently from boys with the same diagnosis.

Q. Do you have another novel in the works?

A. The next book is about a Massachusetts Irish-Catholic family. It takes place over the course of a summer at their beach house in Maine and follows several different women ranging from a grandmother in her 80s to granddaughters in their 30s. It deals with religion, how Catholic families tend to include some members who are really religious, those who are very skeptical, and some in between.

Q. Where do you fall?

A. I’m definitely not highly religious, but like Celia [in “Commencement’’], I tend to say Hail Marys when times are tough.

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