Sunday, July 19, 2009


J. Courtney Sullivan is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Allure, In Style, Men’s Vogue, the New York Observer, Tango, and in the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love (Morrow.) She contributes to the website, and is co-editing an anthology about young women and feminism with Courtney E. Martin. She serves on the advisory board of Girls Write Now, is a graduate of Smith College, and works in the editorial department of the New York Times.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to Commencement, her first novel, and reported the following:
Commencement is a novel about four very different friends—Celia, Bree, Sally and April—who meet as dormmates at Smith College and remain close years later, even as they follow divergent paths into adulthood.

Bree is a southern belle who arrives on campus engaged to her high school sweetheart. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she falls in love with a woman. There’s a popular acronym at Smith, SLUG, which stands for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation. At first, Bree believes the term applies to her, and that she will end the relationship once she leaves school. But it lasts long past graduation, a complicated and sometimes heartbreaking fact for Bree, whose conservative family can’t quite get their heads around the idea.

Bree and her girlfriend Lara meet while working at the campus bookstore. They are instantly drawn to one another. An early draft of the book contained a scene where the two of them sat on a bed together, flirting with the possibility of becoming more than just friends. What came next was more or less left up to the imagination. My best friend read the draft and said, “This is the least hot lesbian sex scene of all time. You need to spice it up.”

The revised version of that scene is the first thing that many readers mention to me now, and it begins—where else?—on page 69:

One Friday night, they were in Lara’s dorm room talking, sitting on the bed with Alison Krauss singing in the background. Lara leaned over and kissed Bree’s neck gently, moving her lips over Bree’s jawbone and onto her face, up to her lips.

“Is this okay?” Lara whispered.

Bree couldn’t say anything but yes.

As they kissed, Lara moved her hands under Bree’s dress and over her skin, making her tremble. “Take it off please,” Lara said.

Nervous and exhilarated, Bree slid the dress over her head and let Lara unhook her bra. She didn’t know what she was doing. It seemed that this should be easier, more intuitive than fooling around with a guy. After all, Lara’s body was so much like her own…

It gets hotter on page 70, trust me.

Is the passage indicative of the book as a whole? Not exactly, though there are a few other bodice-ripping sections that follow. But Commencement is a book about the choices—romantic, professional, political and personal—that shape us. And Bree’s choice to follow her heart is a bold one, which sets her on a path she never could have imagined.
Read an excerpt from Commencement, and learn more about the book and author at J. Courtney Sullivan's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue