Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

Book Review: "The Celebrants" by Steven Rowley

Jun 30, 2023 by Victoria Noe, in Friend Grief , Friendship , Grief

As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to celebrity book clubs. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to have one of my books featured, but it’s rare that they showcase a book that interests me. I also don’t read a lot of fiction, which certainly sets me apart from just about anyone. My research, my writing, my interests are centered in nonfiction.

So I was surprised to find myself buying the June choice of Jenna’s Book Club on the Today Show, The Celebrants. One of the first descriptions of the book compared it to one of my favorite movies, The Big Chill. I can understand the impulse: a group of college friends are forever shaped by the suicide of one member. But aside from the lack of an obvious musical soundtrack, I think that’s where the similarity ends. If it’s evocative of any movie for me, it’s Peter’s Friends.

In 1995, as they’re about to graduate from U of California at Berkeley, one of the group - Alec, whose name is awfully close to Alex, the dead friend in The Big Chill - dies suddenly. The tight-knit group of admittedly privileged misfits is about to venture out into the world, scattered across the country, and their anchor is gone. Their guilt leads them to agree to the kind of pact 22 year olds believe is perfectly reasonable: gather when needed to provide a living funeral for each person left.

A living funeral? Yes, eulogies that your friend can hear instead of waiting until they’re dead. What a concept, right?

As you might expect, secrets are revealed and lies are told. Some of the friends have matured, others peaked in college. They struggle to define success, other than it always seems to be what someone else enjoys, something lacking in their own lives. And they occasionally wonder why the people in this group, no matter how long they’ve been apart, are so important to their sense of self. 

Steven Rowley creates clear, identifiable characters who may remind you of your own friends from college. And though their friendship has survived two decades, he shows that even long-time friendships are imperfect and even unhealthy.

He gives us plenty to think about, and I found myself fixated on the ‘living funeral’ idea. It’s probably a function of my age, and the number of friends who have died, particularly in the last few years. But the idea - to tell your friends how much they mean to you before they die - is one that many people will find intriguing. How the characters in The Celebrant express themselves may inspire you to gather your own friends around.