Monday, October 7, 2013

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

I think this was my favourite of Sullivan's novels.  The book alternates between five different stories and a lot of the fun is trying to figure out how they will fit together in the end.  I guessed some, but not others.

The book starts with Frances Gerety, who we first encounter in 1947.  Frances was an actual copywriter with the advertising firm, Ayer and Son.  She is credited with coining the slogan "A Diamond is Forever" which, in 1999, was named by Advertising Age magazine as the the slogan of the century.  This is a fictionalized account of her personal life spanning from 1947 until 1988 but is based upon factual accounts gathered through interviews, annual reports, advertising campaigns and personal correspondence.  Some of the other characters Frances interacts with at Ayer were also real people.  It appears that Ayer, on behalf of its client De Beers, is largely responsible for engagement rings becoming an everyday phenomenon.

The remainder of the stories deal with diamonds, engagements and marriage.  We next meet Evelyn and her husband Gerald in 1972.  They have been married for forty years and Evelyn is fretting over the failure of her son's marriage to a daughter in law she adores.  As Evelyn worries about her son she reveals some of her marital history, including her earlier marriage to Gerald's Harvard roommate, Nathaniel.  A key character is, of course, the diamond ring Gerald gives her when they become engaged - an expensive two diamond platinum ring that had belonged to his mother.

Jumping forward to 1987, we encounter James, an EMS with a temper who has never lived up to his potential.  Despite this he is married to his highschool sweetheart, Sheila and they have two little boys.  It is Christmas time and Sheila has just been mugged, losing everything in her possession, including the engagement ring with the tiny diamond that James had made for her when they got engaged.  The couple is struggling financially and much of James' time is spent figuring out how to replace that ring.

In 2003 we are introduced to Delphine.  She is a forty year old woman who abandoned a stable, if unexciting, marriage and business in Paris to follow a 23 year old violinist who proposes to her on a whim.  We learn about their happiness after it has occurred as she has now discovered the worst of him and is exacting revenge on his apartment and his life.  She does have good intentions of returning the engagement ring to his mother (as it had been hers) but loses it.  We only learn much later what happened to the ring, though Delphine never does.

Finally, in 2012 we meet Kate.  She is in a stable relationship with Dan and they have a 3 year old daughter but she is politically opposed to marriage and refuses to enter into it despite pressure from her mother and sister.  She is busy preparing for the upcoming marriage of her cousin Jeffrey to his long time partner Toby now that gay marriage has been legalized in New York.  One of her jobs is picking up the rings at the jeweller and bringing them to the wedding.  She finds the diamond rings tacky and obsesses over whether they might be blood diamonds.  When one goes missing she wonders if she was subconsciously responsible for its disappearance.

In the end all of the stories do tie together.  And along the way, Sullivan creates likeable and interesting characters that I came to care about.

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