The Engagements is the first of Courtney Sullivan's novels that I've read, and one that I enjoyed immensely. Despite the fluffy chick lit-reminiscent cover and title (her publisher is clearly attempting to market to upwardly mobile women who shop), there's quite a bit to chew on in this complex, but entertaining, novel.
Several seemingly disparate plot threads circle around a fictional take on a real-life historical character, Frances Gerety, the advertising copywriter who coined the phrase "A Diamond is Forever" in 1947. Sullivan has clearly done her research and offers a fascinating portrait of a woman working in a male-dominated industry from the 1930s through the late sixties. And, if like me, you've never learned much about the history of the diamond engagement ring in America, Sullivan provides a truly absorbing overview of the way diamonds, which previous to World War II were viewed more as an extravagance than a commitment symbol, made their way into the dreams of marriageable young women. Did you know that diamonds were considered a waste of money by young couples prior to the 1940s? Let's just say that marketing is an extremely powerful tool, and Sullivan's historic overview of diamond advertising (by means of Frances' story) will leave you with much food for thought.
Around this crux of the novel Sullivan weaves four stories of love, marriage, and, of course, diamonds. We learn of Evelyn and Gerald, married in the 1920s, and their son, whose divorce in the early 1970s rocks Evelyn's view of family commitment. We meet James and Sheila, a blue collar couple struggling to keep their family afloat amidst bills and mistakes in the late 1980s. In 2003 the French fortysomething Delphine leaves her passionless marriage for a 23-year-old violin virtuoso, following him to New York on the heels of 9/11. And in 2012 Kate, who enjoys a steady partnership with Dan, but doesn't believe in marriage, must face the elaborate wedding plans of her beloved gay cousin, despite her feeling that such excess is immoral. These stories in and of themselves are absorbing and well-played, and seem completely unrelated to one another other than the common theme of marriage and commitment. As the novel comes to a close, however, we learn that a single diamond ring ties these strangers together through nearly a hundred years of coupling.
J. Courtney Sullivan is 31 years old, but writes with the wisdom of someone with far greater life experience. She clearly understands that research is a crucial foundation for a novel that sweeps many decades, and adds detail that makes each time period seem authentic. In addition, Sullivan writes very well. I found I couldn't put the book down for wondering how the various relationships and lives would turn out, for wanting to know more about Frances Gerety's story, and as the end approached, to learn how the various stories were connected. Sullivan has produced a novel of depth, handled lightly. I love when a writer causes me to think keenly about moral issues without beating me over the head, and Sullivan masters that feat. The Engagements asks deep questions about love, passion, commitment, and family relationships, as well as the precious stone that, for better or for worse, often represents it all.