The Engagements a Flawed, But Shiny Gem

The Engagements (2013)
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Random House
* * *

Although I adored J. Courtney Sullivan’s previous book, Maine, I admit feeling apprehensive about opening The Engagements. True to its title, the novel is about wedding engagements. Sort of–and the “sort of” makes all the difference in the world. My fear was that it would little more than chick-lit. I try to avoid chick-lit, not because it threatens my manhood, but because most of is like sifting through tons of slag in search of a single paragraph that sparkles. Sullivan’s latest is no Hope diamond, but it certainly qualifies as a small, if flawed, gem.

It’s a sprawling novel that skips between time periods: the 1930s through the early 1950s, 1972, 1982, 2003, and 2012. It also blends five stories, sometimes directly, and sometimes tangentially. The sheer number of stories and the constant time jumps make for an inconsistent book, though a fascinating one. The book’s center is Frances Gerety, the woman who invented modern marriage. Think I’m kidding? Gerety was a feminist before most people heard of the word, a high-powered advertising agent in a male-dominated world, and the crackerjack copy writer for N. W. Ayer & Sons who, in a sleep-deprived moment of desperation in 1947, coined the phrase that has come to symbolize modern weddings: “A diamond is forever.” She’s also the one that worked with Ayer client De Beers to determine that an engagement ring ought to cost two months’ salary, and the one that early on helped De Beers cover its “blood diamond” tracks.

Diamonds are the rock upon which Sullivan tethers the four other stories. In 1972, we first meet Evelyn, who is married to Gerald. Their son Teddy has left his wife and taken up with a woman Evelyn perceives to be a floozy. As we soon learn, the gold digger suspicions resurrect some of Evelyn’s demons, as she too was viewed by some as an opportunist for marrying the wealthy Gerald, the best friend of her deceased first husband.

Ten years later we encounter Sheila, James, and their two kids, a hand-to-mouth working-class family from East Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a departure for Sullivan–known for her female protagonists–James is the center of this drama. He’s a hot-tempered but good-hearted pump-the-caffeine E.M.T. wracked with guilt that his house is falling apart, the bills are piling up, and he’s never given Sheila the princess treatment he thinks she deserves. He can’t even afford to pass up overtime to be home during a  Christmas Eve blizzard, let alone treat Sheila as royalty. Maybe a beautiful ring would make her feel better and assuage his guilt. Maybe not.

Jump ahead to 2003 and cross the ocean to Paris, where we met Delphine, who is still drop-dead sexy at age 40. She’s already made some trade-offs in her life, including marrying the older Henri, who was first her business partner in a shop that sells rare instruments. They live in a posh apartment, but Delphine still sees herself as an avant-garde gamin who belongs in a funky section of Montmartre. Enter PJ, a 23-year-old musical savant who is the only person good enough to purchase Henri’s prized Stradivarius. Is the man-child PJ also talented enough to captivate and capture the bored Delphine? Will the ring on her finger seal the deal?

In 2012, we meet Kate, who wants nothing to do with marriage, an institution she finds utterly bourgeois and morally bankrupt. Her partner, Dan, the father of her children, is fine with that, though Kate’s family thinks she’s a vacuous hippie-wannabe. Kate’s crisis comes in the form of her cousin, Jeff, who buys into every last bit of the wedding industry hype. He and his male lover, Toby, are deep into planning an über-expensive gay wedding and Kate, who dearly loves them both, finds herself involuntarily thrust into the middle of their Bridezilla madness. As you’ve no doubt surmised, a ring factors into the equation.

Connecting these five stories is quite a challenge and, frankly, Sullivan resorts to contrivances in several cases. Each reader is likely to like certain sections and characters and feel let down elsewhere. I wasn’t all that “engaged” by Evelyn and Gerald, perhaps because Sullivan’s take on 1972 seemed more caricature than substantive. By contrast, my heart went out to James–probably because I know firsthand some of the stacked deck against working-class dreams that frustrated him. I wanted more of Frances, who deserves a book of her own.

A small footnote: No other review has mentioned what seems obvious to me–Sullivan’s “engagements” are not just of the marital sort. This novel probes other links that bind us to one another; among them: family ties, work relationships, friendships, business connections, and consumer culture. And breathe in this irony: Frances Gerety, the woman who made brides crave diamonds, never married.--Rob Weir

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