J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel, The Engagements, has an interesting premise: it’s a cross-pollination of four stories about marriages starting, ending, and unraveling, all brought together by a fictionalized account of the life and work of Frances Gerety, an ad woman. And these stories are all brought together, more generally, by the symbol of an engagement ring. Gerety, both in real life and in fiction, worked at the Philadelphia ad agency known as Ayer’s and became most well known for the slogan she created for the De Beers diamond commercials. If you’ve heard or seen A Diamond is Forever, then you were being affected by one of Gerety’s ads.
Gerety’s story prefaces each of the book’s five sections, and each of the five sections tells the story of an additional, different primary character. It’s probably easiest to discuss them in the order in which they’re introduced, which is connected to how far back in time their stories reach. After Gerety, whose story begins in the 1940s, we jump ahead to the 1970s and Evelyn, a lovely and prickly woman on her second marriage. After that it’s the 1980s with the only male primary character, James, who balances out Evelyn’s romantic vision about what marriage should be. The next character, Delphine, brings the story up to 2003. I found her sections, many of which involve flashbacks to a life in Paris, enjoyable and vivid; Sullivan does well in helping readers to see the streets through which her characters walk. Finally, a woman named Kate brings the story up to the relative present (2012); unlike the previous three characters, she has no wish to get married; unlike the linking character of Frances, she is in a happy, committed relationship.
These characters show us a full range of life experiences and emotions in relation to the marriage process: reluctance, romance, divorce, widowhood, infidelity, betrayal, abandonment, levels of commitment, arguments for marriage equality, and opinions about the marriage process. There’s something for everyone.
I was drawn to this book because I greatly enjoyed one of Sullivan’s previous novels, Commencement. When this arrived, I dove right in, eager to see what this book contained. For the first few sections, through the introduction of Frances and the other four main characters, I couldn’t put the book down. In the late middle (only minor spoilers here), you end up waiting for the payoffs in the final chapters a little too long—I grew impatient, wanting to get to the reveal that I thought would link the characters together and show why these stories are being told simultaneously. As the last section of the book began, its intensity increased and I was drawn back in. The ending was sweet and bitter; we end up spending days with some characters and watching the lives of others pass by. And, ultimately, their stories do connect, coming together with ease and not too much convenience.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Knopf. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.