The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 400 pages. ISBN13: 9780307958716.
In the mid-40s a young female copywriter created that now well-worn saying “A Diamond is Forever” for a De Beers advertising campaign. Frances Gerety worked in the copy department of N.W. Ayer and Son among mostly men, never married and for the most part enjoyed her independent lifestyle. At the time, women in advertising worked on “women’s products” and provided the “women’s perspective” to particular clients [think about when Peggy on Mad Men gets called on for her opinions on lipstick or home cleaning products instead of airlines and cars]. Author Courtney Sullivan writes: “Others treated her like an exotic pet—a woman of forty, who worked alongside their husbands, with no apparent interest in a husband or children of her own.” I’d like to read an entire book about Frances Gerety.
Sullivan weaves Gerety’s story among those of four couples to illustrate love, marriage, commitment. Engagements, marriage, big wedding extravaganzas don’t interest me. I abhor diamond rings and would never wear one. Think about the suffering and wars fought in order for women to wear something that symbolizes their desirability. Wedding and engagement rings symbolize societal expectations, status and possession. People marry for varied reasons: love (of course); companionship; financial security; fear to be alone; to have a family and check off the societal expectations to-do list. The novel’s strength lies in its feminist meditation on relationships.
Wealthy, near-retirement Evelyn and Gerald met during college in the late 1920s–he a Harvard student from a wealthy family, she a Wellesley scholarship student. Gerald’s best friend, also Evelyn’s first husband, who died in WWII connects them. Financially struggling Sheila and James married when Sheila became pregnant. Sullivan writes: “Her friends, who she had felt so superior to back then, had seen their average-looking husbands grown into men with money and power, the sort of guys who took them to the Bahamas for an anniversary, or out to dinner in town every Friday night. And what did Sheila have? The formerly handsome teenager who failed to live up to his potential.”
Parisian Delphine married her friend and much-older business partner Henri, settling into a comfortable, passionless marriage that pushes her toward an affair. Describing Delphine, Sullivan writes: “It was absurd that she had not had a boyfriend to speak of since university, and that boyfriend was now married with two children, and living in a vineyard in Bordeaux, while she still managed to get her heart broken every year or so; she was a hopeless romantic with a taste for unkind men. It was absurd that she was thirty-three and yet still unsure about what to do with her life.”
Kate and her husband live together with their daughter and no intention to marry. Of Kate, Sullivan writes: “She hated the way a bride would raise up her bouquet in victory after saying “I do,” as if she had just accomplished something. She hated that even normal-sized women dieted for their weddings so they looked like bobble-head versions of themselves. She hated all the money thrown into some dark hole, when it could have been put to good use in a million other ways.”
The novel zigzags back and forth through various time frames as well as from couple to couple. The time shifts could be smoother. I found myself looking back to the beginning of chapters to recall which decade I was in when it should be obvious. When a few characters finally interact it’s rather choppy. It gets a tad confusing with so many characters but there’s a character for every reader. For me, I appreciated Kate as well as Delphine.
Sullivan excels at creating vivid characters and situations which engulf readers from page to page. Her writing reflects hot button topics– gay marriage, feminism, blood diamonds, cohabitation, affairs– in a smart manner without alienating anyone. It’s a well-written, thoughtful and engaging read.
ps. Reese Witherspoon purchased the book rights so read this before it becomes a film!
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.