When April, Celia, Bree and Sally arrive at Smith College in the late 1990s and move onto the same freshman hall, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll end up as friends. Celia’s a boy-crazy Catholic schoolgirl, ready for adventure; Bree is a sweet Southern belle—a Smith legacy—with an engagement ring on her finger and a pile of family pressure hanging over her; Sally, a wealthy girl from Boston, is still reeling from her mother’s death the previous summer; and April, who seems to fit in best, is an angry feminist from Chicago with unshaven legs and a chip on her shoulder.

But remarkably, they do get along, supporting each other through the daily ups and downs of college life, the unique issues of an all-women’s school and the more substantial clouds that hang over each of them. For Sally, it’s an intense and damaging relationship with a professor; for Celia, a trip off-campus that shatters her trust in men; for Bree it’s the end of an engagement, and an unlikely new love interest; and for April, a deepening commitment to a dangerous cause.

Four years after graduation, the group reunites for Sally’s wedding. Celia, Bree, Sally and April come together on Smith’s campus looking for the same kind of comfortable rapport that they once had. As they reminisce about their college days, though, ugly feelings are revealed, and the once unbreakable quartet seems more vulnerable than ever. But then something unthinkable happens to one member, forcing them again to find the strength in these friendships—the most important of their lives.

Taking a page from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, J. Courtney Sullivan has honed in on so much of the utter anguish of adolescence and young adulthood. Her characters are brilliantly flawed, intensely realistic, thoroughly compassionate and often incredibly funny. And, while a plot twist in the middle of the book feels a bit unrealistic, it also adds suspense and depth to a more classic coming-of-age tale. With this warm, insightful debut, Sullivan has positioned herself as a voice to watch.

Rebecca Shapiro writes best from her hammock in Brooklyn, New York. 

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