Editorial note: I received a copy of The Celebrants in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.
The Celebrants by Steven Rowley follows a group of college friends through different stages of life as they navigate the challenges of adulthood.
Steven Rowley is one of my favorite authors. I adore The Editor and The Guncle—highly recommend if you haven’t read those yet. So I was especially looking forward to his latest, The Celebrants. And in more exciting news, Jenna Bush Hager from the Today Show selected it for her June book club pick!
As you can tell I had high expectations. I did like it overall. But I didn’t love it. Some of the characters fell a little short for me.
What’s the Story About
We follow the friends from when they’re in college to almost 30 years post-graduation. The story has two timelines—one in the present and the other starting in college and then at every reunion.
The five friends are Jordan, Jordy, Naomi, Craig, and Marielle. They developed a special connection when they’re all transfer students at Berkeley. Their sixth friend, Alec, died of an overdose right before graduation and his death had rippling effects on the entire group.
While Jordan and Jordy paired up in New York, the rest of the friends become distant. But when Marielle experiences a life crisis, she turns back to her old friends. She comes up with the idea to throw each other living ‘funerals’. The funerals idea is to remind the friends that life is worth living.
They conduct these funerals throughout the decades. However, once Jordan receives devastating news, the group of friends will change forever.
No matter the story, the author Steven Rowley has this fantastic way of bring humor and heartbreak in almost every page. He does not shy away from serious and sentimental topics but also can present plenty of laughs too. I truly marvel at his ability to handle those two extremes in such a profound way.
That said, I didn’t love this group of friends. This is simply a case where I didn’t feel a connection. I think the best out of the group are the Jordans. I actually wanted to read more of their relationship.
I do admire that Steven is presenting people with flaws. There’s not really a central character that holds it all together—everyone is a mess in their own way.
But I’m perplexed why these people are still friends. I understand the nostalgia of college and youth. They all also shared the grief of losing their friend in college.
However, I kept thinking these are a prime example of people who should have probably just naturally grew apart. I have friends in college that we shared great times and also impactful moments but we eventually lost touch other than Instagram likes and such and that’s totally okay.
I will say throwing each other living funerals is such an interesting concept. Something that I could see people doing for sure. It really served as a reminder of the importance of telling people how much they mean to you while you can because no one of us know what is in store in the future.
But again, with the story, I think a problem for me was that I just didn’t buy this friendship and their pact. I really thought with the first funeral, what are they even going to say? They haven’t seen each in so long, haven’t meet Marielle’s daughter. And with they reunite, they often bicker.
Something else the group is very much gen-x focused so I couldn’t relate to all of their experiences as young adults in the ’90s as I was still a kid. And what’s interesting to me is that it doesn’t normally bother me—I can read stories about people much older and younger than me with no problem. But there was something about this group of gen-xers that I kind of felt like I was an outsider looking in.
I’m being tough on this one because I had such high expectations and I love his other novels! Again, I did like it, there are elements truly standout and I thought the whole living funeral idea was very interesting. I read this one quick and was curious where it would go.
But the people and their friendship wasn’t where I expected it to be. I was left wanting more.
I do think if you’re a gen-xer, you’ll really enjoy this novel with all the references and such.
Overall, this book is fine (3 1/2 stars) and it would be a good read on a plane ride. But I do think his other novels are much more compelling and impactful.
For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here.