J. Courtney Sullivan’s intelligent, sharply witty Commencement (Vintage, $14.95) traces the friendship, relationships, and careers of four women who meet at Smith College in the 1990s. It’s an affectionate yet critical portrait of a women’s school. But Sullivan’s smart, savvy characters would be furious if I referred to this book as chick lit. “When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it’s either called chick lit or women’s fiction, right?” one character asks. “But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they’d been women… Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto Rabbit at Rest, and poof, there goes the fucking Pulitzer.”
This summer, drop every other beach read and visit Maine (Knopf, $25.95) with the whip-smart, wickedly funny J. Courtney Sullivan. Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement. a group portrait of friends who meet at Smith College in the 1990s, is a necessity for every smart girl’s reading list, and Maine is even more accomplished, ambitious, and addictive. We meet women from all different generations of the Kelleher clan: Alice, the boozy, strict Catholic matriarch; Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic who owns an organic worm farm in California; Mary Ann, a perfectionist in-law with a strange hobby; and Maggie, a struggling writer in New York. They converge at the family’s summer cottage, each bearing secrets that Sullivan teases out in chapters of pitch-perfect alternating points of view.