Finally! The Engagementsby J. Courtney Sullivan is one of the two books I’ve been waiting to read this summer. Why did hers come first? Because it was published first (and I just ordered the other, so that’ll be on the blog at some point this summer).
Glad to report that I loved it. The Engagements focuses on different generations and their attitudes around one thing: diamonds, specifically diamons used in engagement rings, which is a jumping off point for the roles of women in work and in marriage and child rearing in general.
Sullivan starts with Mary Frances Gerety, who works for the Ayer advertising agency in Philadelphia, starting in the 1940s. She comes up with the line “A Diamond is Forever” even though she is completely career focused and has no interset in romance or family. Copywriting is her job, and for De Beers it was to convince people that a diamond engagement ring is an absolutely necessity precursor to marriage where before only the wealthy did that, and not always with diamonds (my aunt’s antique engagement ring, for example, is an emerald). It’s easy to think that this character was inspired by Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen, except that Gerety was a real person, and really did coin the line.
Then, as Sullivan’s other books have done, the story is then told from rotating points of view from Gerety’s career to 2012, but instead of groups of people are are obviously connected – college roommates in Commencementand family members in Maine– the connection between relationships are not apparent, and only show themselves as the book continues, with the last reveals coming very late in the book. It’s interesting to see how she connects them – the 2000s French shop keeper, the 1980s Cambridge paramedic driver, the 1970s retired school teacher – and their feelings and emotions surrounding the diamond engagement ring with history of the ad campaign looping through.
Like I said up top, I loved the book, and stayed up way too late and may have taken reading breaks during the day to finish it. But it did dredge up a lot of junk in the back of my brain. I was almost engaged once. I even picked out my ring (which was an antique and from before the creation of Gerety’s famous line). When I found out the price of the ring, which was in the five figures, I felt ill. For what? But he insisted that it was what I “needed.” Of course, I ended up not needing it since we never got engaged. Fortunately, he didn’t buy it (though I found out it’s still there – I made the mistake of walking into the store when I was in the town where the shop is located soon after our breakup. Whoops.)
I’m most aligned with Kate, who is the 2012 character and anti-marriage. She lives with her (male) partner, and they have a daughter, but she doesn’t want to be part of the marriage industrial complex, in which her sister is totally ingrained. The wedding in her story is that of her gay cousin, but the flashbacks to the sister’s choices – knowing exactly what she needed in a ring, the suburban house, the big SUV life, the giving up the career, then the talk about how she “needs” to trade up her ring. Like Kate, I can’t stand that buzz and noise. It seems so stupid to me, not just in the throwing money down the toilet, but in that so many people want to flush feminist’s hard earned wins down the toilet (the nonsense in Texas doesn’t help either). In this story, Sullivan makes a point I think about a lot: so many people seem focused on the act of the wedding, but what about after? Isn’t that what’s important?
Unlike Kate, however, I am opposed to marriage; I’m just not obsessed with being married (even though it seems a lot of people in my life are (you might not be surprised that’s the case since I’m 32, but this started in my mid-20s). It doesn’t seem that any of the other characters in the other story are obsessed with weddings, though. That was refreshing. This is not trite chick lit. It’s an excellent novel, and a good one to get a reader thinking, as Sullivan’s other novels have been. I can tell she’s maturing as a writer, and I’m glad that she’s chosen to continue down this road. There are so many women’s books that are baths of pink and drinks and heels and man chasing. It’s nice to have something else out there for the rest of us.
Two more random things:
1. I mentioned in my review of House of Tides (book 19 of 52) about using a rotating narrator, and how I didn’t think the author had done it well in that case. It worked well here since all of the narratives were very different from each other even though, eventually, connected. I do worry that it’s being overused though, and that the poor examples like House of Tides and that book I DNFed, will ruin it for everyone else.
2. I’ve been reading Sullivan’s work since her debut novel, so of course I wanted to read The Engagements, but I bought it knowing that we are now with the same literary agency. Yes, I have an agent! And while we don’t share the same agent, mine was listed in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, which was a jolt. A good one, but a light smack to remind me that there’s a book deal dangling out there for me on another level of publishing than where I’ve been before. But I don’t want to say too much to jinx it – just a nifty coincidence.