Review

The Engagements

by J. Courtney Sullivan

A 1948 in-house strategy memo from N.W. Ayer and Son, the advertising agency responsible for the diamond manufacturer De Beers, clearly gives their execs their marching orders --- make the diamond engagement ring as essential to the wedding ritual as the dress, or even the groom.

"'We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say, “I wish I had what she has.’”

And the woman behind creating this need was groundbreaking advertising executive Frances Gerety. Based in Ayer’s Philadelphia office, it was Gerety who came up with the iconic phrase “A Diamond is Forever,” which is still used in De Beers advertising today. And because of this brilliant strategy, the diamond engagement ring has become synonymous with weddings in post-World War II America.

With Gerety’s story framing the narrative, J. Courtney Sullivan weaves a tapestry of several marriages and relationships over the course of many years, made manifest by one diamond engagement ring. First worn by Evelyn Pearsall in the 1920s, we follow this one particular ring throughout the years and the many marriages and relationships it has witnessed. Evelyn marries Nathaniel, her college sweetheart, in the hospital chapel after he suffered horrible injuries in a car accident, to which he finally succumbed.

"What could prove daunting for most writers --- covering a multitude of characters over such a broad scope in time --- [Sullivan]  tackles effortlessly, and fully realized people and situations emerge. With so much grist for discussion, THE ENGAGEMENTS is a natural for book clubs."

Devastated by her young husband’s death, she never could have predicted that she would eventually fall in love with Nathaniel’s roommate and their mutual friend, Gerald. But their shared grief brings them together, and soon they realize they were meant to be. Delphine marries her business partner and friend, Henri, and although the marriage is not bursting with passion, there is comfort, mutual respect and security within the confines of their relationship.

That is, until Delphine meets young concert violinist P.J., and she gives in to the desires she has previously repressed. But she soon discovers that with great passion comes great strife, when she leaves Henri for her handsome musician and uproots her entire life to follow him to New York City. James is a frustrated rock star in his soul and a harried paramedic in reality. His long-suffering wife, Gloria, was recently the victim of a mugging where the thief absconded with her engagement ring. It wasn’t a very impressive one since they married so young, but James is determined to save up enough money to buy her a new one --- a ring she deserves. Kate, her boyfriend, Dan, and their young daughter, Ava, are playing host to her mother, her sister, May, and May’s entire family as they gather for their cousin Jeff’s wedding to his longtime boyfriend, Toby.

Kate has long been considered the black sheep of the family, choosing to buck tradition and not get married. She also doesn’t want to play into that consumerist trap of getting an ostentatious diamond that most likely made its way to this country on the blood and sweat of some poor African worker. She couldn’t understand the pandemonium a wedding brings: “There was something fascinating about the juxtaposition of their obsession with perfection --- Will it rain? Which dress should I pick?! How will the food taste? --- with the darkest concerns about love and life, and how easily it could all unravel. Kate wondered if this was the reason weddings had gotten so out of control. Were they meant to distract you from your fear and uncertainty?” There has to be more to marriage than just the wedding, right?

Using the clever device of the ring, Sullivan gets to explore many love stories and varied narratives in different time periods, reflecting the changing times and mores, and even the fluctuating attitudes towards the institution of marriage itself. As the book progresses, a seamless tapestry comes together, as we begin to see how each couple, each person, relates to the others. Sullivan is a keen observer of people and how they morph over time, either being softened by the years or made more brittle by strife, as deftly demonstrated in her earlier novels, COMMENCEMENT and MAINE. What could prove daunting for most writers --- covering a multitude of characters over such a broad scope in time --- she tackles effortlessly, and fully realized people and situations emerge.

With so much grist for discussion, THE ENGAGEMENTS is a natural for book clubs. Fans of Anne Tyler (especially of THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE) and, more recently, Jennifer Close’s GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES and THE SMART ONE will also relate to Sullivan’s honest and unflinching look at marriage in all its varieties. 

It is worth noting that Sullivan passes along this little gem about marriage by the poet Ogden Nash, entitled “A Word to Husbands,” which I can’t wait to incorporate into a wedding/anniversary toast:

“To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 14, 2013

The Engagements
by J. Courtney Sullivan

  • Publication Date: May 20, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307949222
  • ISBN-13: 9780307949226