Posts Tagged J. Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements: book review


The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 400 pages. ISBN13: 9780307958716.

In the mid-40s a young female copywriter created that now well-worn saying “A Diamond is Forever” for a De Beers advertising campaign. Frances Gerety worked in the copy department of N.W. Ayer and Son among mostly men, never married and for the most part enjoyed her independent lifestyle. At the time, women in advertising worked on “women’s products” and provided the “women’s perspective” to particular clients [think about when Peggy on Mad Men gets called on for her opinions on lipstick or home cleaning products instead of airlines and cars]. Author Courtney Sullivan writes: “Others treated her like an exotic pet—a woman of forty, who worked alongside their husbands, with no apparent interest in a husband or children of her own.” I’d like to read an entire book about Frances Gerety.

Sullivan weaves Gerety’s story among those of four couples to illustrate love, marriage, commitment. Engagements, marriage, big wedding extravaganzas don’t interest me. I abhor diamond rings and would never wear one. Think about the suffering and wars fought in order for women to wear something that symbolizes their desirability. Wedding and engagement rings symbolize societal expectations, status and possession. People marry for varied reasons: love (of course); companionship; financial security; fear to be alone; to have a family and check off the societal expectations to-do list. The novel’s strength lies in its feminist meditation on relationships.

Wealthy, near-retirement Evelyn and Gerald met during college in the late 1920s–he a Harvard student from a wealthy family, she a Wellesley scholarship student. Gerald’s best friend, also Evelyn’s first husband, who died in WWII connects them. Financially struggling Sheila and James married when Sheila became pregnant. Sullivan writes: “Her friends, who she had felt so superior to back then, had seen their average-looking husbands grown into men with money and power, the sort of guys who took them to the Bahamas for an anniversary, or out to dinner in town every Friday night. And what did Sheila have? The formerly handsome teenager who failed to live up to his potential.”

Parisian Delphine married her friend and much-older business partner Henri, settling into a comfortable, passionless marriage that pushes her toward an affair. Describing Delphine, Sullivan writes: “It was absurd that she had not had a boyfriend to speak of since university, and that boyfriend was now married with two children, and living in a vineyard in Bordeaux, while she still managed to get her heart broken every year or so; she was a hopeless romantic with a taste for unkind men. It was absurd that she was thirty-three and yet still unsure about what to do with her life.”

Kate and her husband live together with their daughter and no intention to marry. Of Kate, Sullivan writes: “She hated the way a bride would raise up her bouquet in victory after saying “I do,” as if she had just accomplished something. She hated that even normal-sized women dieted for their weddings so they looked like bobble-head versions of themselves. She hated all the money thrown into some dark hole, when it could have been put to good use in a million other ways.”

The novel zigzags back and forth through various time frames as well as from couple to couple. The time shifts could be smoother. I found myself looking back to the beginning of chapters to recall which decade I was in when it should be obvious. When a few characters finally interact it’s rather choppy. It gets a tad confusing with so many characters but there’s a character for every reader. For me, I appreciated Kate as well as Delphine.

Sullivan excels at creating vivid characters and situations which engulf readers from page to page. Her writing reflects hot button topics– gay marriage, feminism, blood diamonds, cohabitation, affairs– in a smart manner without alienating anyone. It’s a well-written, thoughtful and engaging read.

RATING: ****/5

ps. Reese Witherspoon purchased the book rights so read this before it becomes a film!

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.

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Maine: book review

Maine , by J. Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 14, 2011) Literary fiction. Hardcover, 400 pages.

She got the feeling that none of her children particularly liked one another, or worse, that they had no use for one another. So why keep the old place? And why bother coming up, year after year, when it only made her feel lonely, longing for something she’d already had?

J. Courtney Sullivan writes women vividly, flawed and in such a resonant way that you recognize women that you know in her characters. Sullivan focuses on the Kelleher family with all its dysfunction, hidden drama and interactions. The mercurial family matriarch Alice Kelleher has three children. Alice’s eldest daughter Kathleen is an eco-friendly free-spirit who moved to California to raise worms with her second husband, Arlo. Clare, the middle child, lives happily in Jamaica Plain with her husband where they run a successful business. Patrick, the youngest and most successful, seems most invested in Alice’s well-being.

The business was the perfect reflection of their relationship. Arlo was a dreamer, an optimist, a big-picture guy. And Kathleen was a realist—she told it like it was. Together, they just worked.

Alice’s husband Daniel died not too long ago which has left a void for the entire Kelleher clan. Lately in Maine, Alice spends the majority of time with the local priest. The rest of the family’s turned away from Catholicism for the most part. She questions her mothering ability even now. It turns out that Alice had always planned to move to Paris and become an artist but she met her husband Daniel and a new reality quashed her dreams.

She thought of how she never really liked children, though her friends always said positively everyone fell in love with their own once they had them. She felt as though her body was full of something bigger than itself, pushing against every inch of her, trying to get out. She wanted to say that she was here only by some strange accident, but that in reality she should be in a Paris apartment right now, painting in solitude.

In June, three generations of women converge on the cottage. Grand-daughter Maggie, who recently broke up with her boyfriend and discovered she’s pregnant, retreats to the beach. When she finally shares her secret with her mom, Kathleen rushes to be with her daughter in Maine. Though Kathleen isn’t very family oriented she loves her two children. She’s not been to Maine in a decade and that’s a rather thorny issue for her mother and even sister-in-law. Anne Marie, Alice’s seemingly perfect daughter-in-law, arrives harboring a bittersweet secret crush and painful truth [for her] about one of her children.

Family expectations, judgments and perceptions rarely change throughout the years. While I sometimes got a bit bogged down in all the peripheral characters, Sullivan tackles marriage and family dynamics in a solidly truthful and amusing manner in the densely packed Maine. It’s definitely the type of drama to dig into during the warm months.


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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Courtney Sullivan [Commencement]


Title: Commencement
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
ISBN: 978-0307270740
Pages: 336
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Publisher: Knopf
Review source: self-purchase
Rating: 4.5/5






When her friends began to get engaged, instead of feeling jealous or antsy to do the same, Celia realized something: There was a very real possibility that no one was coming to save her. She would have to make her own plan. If she wanted to someday leave her job and write books, then she’d have to write books to do it, not wait around for some hedge fund guy to finance her fantasies.

During their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April are thrown together by proximity. These young women are assigned to the same dorm. They seem as disparate in personality, interests, and backgrounds as anyone can be. Celia is a lapsed Catholic who lives on the edge. Bree is a Southern Belle with a fiancé at home in Savannah. Wealthy and emotionally drained Sally’s mother recently died. April is the radical feminist who constantly feels like an outcast. The 18-year-olds who arrive at Smith are not the same 21-year-olds who graduate from Smith College four years later. After weathering many ups and downs at Smith, by the time the women graduate, they are the best of friends and closer than many family members. By creating smart, layered characters and writing thoughtful, entertaining and moving prose, debut novelist J. Courtney Sullivan gets it right. She has created memorable, vastly different women who are intelligent, independent and devoted to each other. Although they are now spread out throughout the country, Sally is getting married and the girls will reunite at Smith for the ceremony.  Commencement is not merely a story about the experience of four twenty-something women’s college graduates. Commencement is an unabashedly feminist novel about the importance of female friendship and personal choices.

I recently spoke by phone with Courtney Sullivan. I decided to leave it in its question and answer format as we talked about feminism, sex trafficking, writing and her novel Commencement—making it difficult for me to put it into a profile format.

If you live in the Boston area, Courtney will be at New Literary Voices as part of the Concord Festival of Authors in Concord, Mass on November 1.

Courtney Sullivan [CS]: When I started writing the book, I was at the age where I had enough distance from the place but was feeling nostalgic about it. I had been re-reading The Group [by Mary McCarthy], which is one of my favorite books, and I was thinking about my group of friends from Smith who’d gone in very different directions. Some were at home taking care of parents who were ill, some were getting married and moving out to suburbia and some were in the city working and dating dealing with all that. It sort of in some ways was a challenge to our friendships. I thought ‘how do you stay close to someone when you may have a lot less in common with them then you did when you were in school.’ I thought we had formed these really close friendships at Smith in part because it was a women’s college and there’s a pretty unique bond that develops there. But we were still feeling like we could openly judge and critique each other’s life choices even though we were very far flung at this point. So I wanted to explore that and explore this generation of women who have so many choices– benefitting from the legacy of feminism that came before them in our mother’s generation– but sometimes feeling very overwhelmed by all the possibilities and not quite knowing where to start.
photo by Jerry Bauer

photo by Jerry Bauer

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write a novel about Smith and female friendships?

AS: Why do you think a women’s college education is important for women? I think it is. I went to Simmons, which isn’t Seven Sisters…

CS: Oh my sister and my grandmother went there. For me, it was more about what happened outside the classroom. In the dining hall, we’d have these big debates about politics or literature. The nature of the friendships that developed in the absence of men was pretty interesting too. I think these things are pretty unique and I think that in a culture where sexism is alive and well, there’s something really special and necessary about having this place carved out for just women.

AS: I read an interview you did a while back with the Boston Globe and you were asked about feminism. For me, I was involved in the Feminist Union and an internship at the State House and other activism and never shied away from calling myself a feminist. But there were a lot of students who wouldn’t associate themselves with the term—“No, if I’m a feminist it means I hate men.” I just still cannot believe that’s there is a negative connotation with feminism. Why do you think there’s such a negative connotation? [author’s note: I’m ten years older than Courtney]

CS: We live in a culture that has historically been, if I may drop the P word, patriarchal. There’s this sense that change for women is a scary thing. Maybe women can go into the work force. We’ll allow that but they need to do every thing they used to do on the home front still. We live in a culture that it’s to the benefit of this patriarchal thing to make feminism seem like a bad thing or unnecessary or trivial. On the one hand, it may seem outdated and unnecessary. On the other hand, they make it seem really scary and ugly. So really it’s a fear of what the power of that movement can do and has done. And a lot of women have internalized it. Many young women live their lives as feminists but don’t want to take on the word and it’s pretty disheartening. It’s pretty strange. At the same time, there are a lot of women who do use the word. It’s really alive and well in a lot of places too.

I’m working on this anthology [as co-editor] about the “click” moment, the moments when young women decided that they were feminists. So the essays in the book are by women in their teens, twenties, and thirties writing about what was the moment or person or place or thing that opened their eyes and made them think “this is something I want to take on” or “this is the name I want to use.” They run the gamut from a girl who had ADHD but it was never properly diagnosed until much later in life because it was really a diagnosis mostly given to boys. And we have someone who always wanted to play the tuba in the marching band but had been forced to play the piccolo. It’s quite a range. It’s not just Women’s Studies 101. A lot of it is real life happenings.

AS: When you define feminism how do you define it as everyone seems to have a different definition?

CS: I think what is comes down to is equal rights for men and for women.

AS: That’s what I think too.

CS: I think men benefit from feminism too. I think we live in this culture where men are expected to provide a certain way so that most men [or a lot of men] can’t take off as much time to be at home with their children or if their wife has a baby they are expected to be back to work on Monday. I think to break down this idea that we’re in this very binary sort of structure– men do these things, women do these things– and make it more people do these things will benefit everyone.

That’s what I wanted to get at with Commencement. Obviously these bigger issues like sex trafficking, but how does feminism play out in our day to day lives? I think it comes down to these things like: do you change your name after you get married, do you pay on a date or let the man pay, all these things that may be trivial but that make up what it is to place yourself in this world and say ‘how can I be a feminist and stand up for these beliefs and also just live a normal life?’ What does that look like?

AS: It was great to bring sex trafficking into a novel because people think of it as a thing that’s going on everywhere but in U.S. cities. It seems to people that it only goes on in these remote, foreign places like Ukraine. Unless you’ve seen Very Young Girls, the documentary with GEMS. 

CS: I think that documentary is amazing and I’ve been involved with [GEMS]  a little bit in New York. That documentary is really telling it like it is. But so much of the time when someone writes about domestic trafficking it really never gets any attention. And if it does it’s in this sort of creepy hyper-sexualized way. I always get enraged when I see on Law & Order or a show like that where they’re talking about trafficking but they’re really trying to make it almost seem sexy when it’s actually, in fact, the exact opposite.

AS: What is your writing process?

CS: Well, I have a day job in the editorial department of the New York Times. I can’t get up in the morning to write. The hardest part for me is getting my butt in the chair. I usually write for several hours on a stretch on a weekend day. It always ends up taking a lot of time depending on what I’ve written. Before I work on the chapter I’ll read what I’ve written from beginning to end and ideally read the whole book from beginning to end for what I have so far before adding on to it because I feel like when you’re writing something at that length if you said that character is really shy in Chapter 2 but in Chapter 4 she’s dancing on a table, then you really need to remedy that. The characters take on their own behaviors and then you have to go back and tweak as you are creating. I always start there and write through for as long as I can.

AS: Why do you like to write?

CS: I’ve always written fiction from the time I was maybe five or six. I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction and writing it. I think writing it is even more of an escape factor. You’re in the head of these characters. It’s kind of funny to come out of it for me sometimes. I’ll be writing all day Sunday and then I’ll go to work on Monday and the characters I’ve been trying to work on will still be in my head. So I’ll be scribbling frantic notes to myself. I just think it’s very enjoyable. I’ve always loved theatre. When I was in high school I used to do a lot of theatre as well. I think there are similarities between the two. Except with writing you get to sit in your pajamas and drink tea and with acting you have to stand up in front of a bunch of people. So I’ll choose writing.   

AS: What is your favorite aspect of Commencement?

CS: I find that going around and doing readings most of the people that the book resonates with or who read the book tend to be women. So my readings tend to be chock full of women. Women who went to Smith or who didn’t, women in my age group or much older or younger, they can all relate even if their personal story was different. They can all relate to the friendships in the book and the idea of these friends that you keep around forever- who know you in this way that no one else can. I certainly have those friends in my own life so I’m happy when it resonates with readers.

**note to FCC or anyone who cares: I bought my own copy of Commencement**





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