The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
In 1947, a young copywriter named Mary Frances Gerety dreamt up the phrase “a diamond is forever” as part of an advertising campaign for De Beers, rulers of the diamond industry. She had two goals in mind: to convince the world that marriage means a diamond ring, and that she was just as capable of doing her job as any man. That her campaign has now been successful for more than sixty years is evidence that she did, indeed, achieve her goals.
The Engagements is a story about one such ring, a unique ring, made up of “two large, round Old European cut diamonds… with three small marquise diamonds on either side.” The book follows the ring through decades, across the generations, and in the hands of four couples, as it is lost, found, stolen, and redesigned. Mary Frances Gerety and her slogan, sit at the heart of the story, and oversee its telling.
The engagement ring is the central symbol from which the four stories unfold. It also offers an article whose symbology has remained unchanged, in spite of the changes that the twentieth century has seen. This is a clever device, as the movement of the story’s ring across the century permits an interesting navigation of these changing social, cultural, and political climes. It also allows for an interesting commentary on marriage. Readers witness both these changes and views on marriage through the eyes of the book’s four couples and their multifaceted relationships: Evelyn and Gerald, the long-married, comfortable couple; James and Sheila, the quietly desperate, but loving couple; Delphine, victim of a failed marriage, and now engagement; Kate and Dan, the unmarried, modern couple.
The Engagements offers a whistle-stop tour of the last century, and I found some of the references a bit far-fetched; the time-specific TV broadcasts and newspapers were just a bit too convenient and felt a bit forced. One historical feature that Sullivan weaves into the story beautifully, however, is that of Mary Frances Gerety, the woman who developed the phrase that changed the world. She comes across as the gutsy woman she was, taking on a man’s world in a way that few women would conceive of. For me, these were the only passages that completely and utterly engaged me – the rest of the book always felt like it was lacking something, like it needed more. I had expected a novel, and instead I got short stories, and perhaps the downside of this vignette structure was that I got a little less than could be accommodated.
In spite of never quite seeming to take off like I’d hoped, The Engagements still has memorable moments, and is clearly based on sound and extensive research, something I always appreciate. It’s a fun story, and an engaging (no pun intended) idea with a wonderful selection of characters, all of whom I wanted to invite for a cup of tea and a chat, and, in some instances, to offer them a hug also. There were many conversations that brought to mind ones that have been had amongst my own family, and I found myself mentally replaying a few for days afterwards.
The Engagements is J Courtney Sullivan’s third novel. Her previous novels, Commencement and Maine were New York Times bestsellers. Coincidentally, Sullivan’s own boyfriend proposed to her while she was writing this novel – certainly adds a splash of magic to the tale, doesn’t it?
REVIEWER: Emma Codd