Thursday, July 25, 2013
The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
Somewhere with the mementos of my junior high years are several ads torn out of Readers’ Digest. The ads are from the DeBeers “A diamond is forever” campaign in the 1960s, and I saved them because I liked the artwork. Frances Gerety, a copy writer for N.W. Ayer advertising agency, did her job well; her famous tag line helped DeBeers sell lots of diamonds and convinced generations of couples that the “DER”, diamond engagement ring, is a necessary part of courtship and love, true love.
The Engagements, a new novel by J. Courtney Sullivan, twines together a fictionalized account of Gerety’s life with the story of four couples. The book spans nearly a hundred years and two continents and does not unfold chronologically. Its plot is complicated enough that I wish I had read the print copy rather than listening to the audio version so I could flip back through the pages and reread sections to confirm the sequence of events. The regular and large print copies of the book both have waiting lists, so I made do with the audio book. Once again I found myself sitting in my car wanting to listen to just one more chapter.
I like The Engagements lots. The switching back and forth between Gerald and Evelyn Pearsall in the 1970s, James McKean and his wife Sheila in the 1980s, Henry, Delphine and PJ in the 2000s and Kate and Dan in the 2010s kept my interest throughout all 17 hours (383 pages). I admit if I had been reading the print copy I probably would have jumped ahead to find out more about the same-sex wedding of Kate’s cousin Jeff. Kate, acting as best “man” and given charge of the rings, loses one. Jeff’s partner Toby gets cold feet, and I was anxious to know if a “happily ever after” was in store.
Some reviewers complain that The Engagements develops too slowly. I think this was part of the book’s charm. It is not static; the story keeps progressing, I just wasn’t sure where it was going. Most chapters end suspensefully, and the following chapter might move to a different set of characters, so I wanted to keep listening to learn how each story played out. Some books with complicated plots leave loose ends. The Engagements does not.
The fictional characters were authentic; some easy to hate, some motives hard to understand. Gerety’s story interested me the most; the woman who helped sell engagement rings never married, and the single life suited her. She and Kate might have been great friends; both are strong, independent women with clear beliefs: Frances deserves recognition as originator of the phrase that made DeBeers millions and Kate finds a stable love without needing a ring or vows. Delphine was the character I found most easy to dislike, although her spouse’s passivity made him a close second. James had flaws, but I found his actions more forgivable than Delphine’s. Two of the couples are rather well-to-do, and two struggle to make ends meet.
With the discussion questions provided by Random House, I can see The Engagements provoking lively book club banter. J. Courtney Sullivan has two prior well-reviewed novels, Maine and Commencement, neither of which I have read—yet--and co-edited a book of essays, Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.
~ Michelle, Adult Services