Review: 'The Engagements' by J. Courtney Sullivan (2014)
1947: Mary Frances Gerety, a young copywriter in an eminent advertising agency, has to convince the world of two things - that marriage means a diamond ring on every woman's finger, and that she is as good at her job as any man. And then, in one moment of brilliant inspiration, Mary Frances writes down four words which will achieve both her aims...
Moving from a Harvard swim-meet in 1927 to the three-martini lunches of 1940s advertising, from the back streets of 1980s Boston to an exquisite Parisian music shop in 2003, The Engagements is a novel about love, marriage, commitment and betrayal; it is as sharp, as fiery and as beautiful as the stone we have taken to represent our dreams.
Before I received a review copy of J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel ‘The Engagements’, I hadn’t read anything by this author before. However, I had heard of her and her work. Her debut novel ‘Commencement’, which is about four female friends at college who go through the stages of early adulthood together, was really well-received and became a New York Times best-seller. I love the description of ‘Commencement’ and it has been part of my to-read list for quite some time. So, when I got the chance to read and review a different novel by J. Courtney Sullivan, I immediately jumped at it because I couldn’t wait to discover her work myself!
‘A diamond is forever’ is the famous slogan at the core of ‘The Engagements’ and also what connects the various storylines, spread over several decades, that make up this novel. Mary Frances Gerety is the mastermind behind this catchphrase, and a career woman trying to prove herself in a man’s world (1940’s); Evelyn and her husband have been contentedly married for over 40 years, and it breaks Evelyn’s heart when she discovers her son is filing for divorce (1970’s); ambulance driver James is doing his best to find a way to get out of the debt he and his family are in, and to show his wife he loves her (1980’s); Delphine has left her trustworthy husband to be together with a young up-and-coming violinist in New York, only to discover he has cheated on her (2000’s); Kate is a liberal activist at heart who does not believe in marriage, but finds herself taking on an important role in her cousin’s wedding (2010’s). These five different stories are all connected by two key words: marriage and diamonds, and each shed a different light on matrimony and that longed-for diamond ring.
It took me a bit of time to really get into the novel, because at the start the reader is introduced to five different storylines, each of them worked out in close detail and worthy of its own complete novel. However, as soon as I got stuck in, I didn’t want to stop reading. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the various stories and the characters at their centre, and with each new chapter I looked forward to travelling back in time to the 1950’s or forwards to the 2010’s again. Personally, I specifically liked Frances’ story; a businesswoman trying to find her place in a man’s world, with a secret longing to get to the top, having made the decision to not get married and not have kids, all because of that career she so longed for. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that her part of the story was in fact a collection of fictionalised events and traces of her true life, and I think this really added a special feel to the story.
I loved how all the characters were connected to one another while living in different eras and dealing with different things. The entire book is so well-written with worked-out characters that captivated me continually, I could easily imagine all of it happening and could have stayed in their worlds for much longer than the approximately 500 pages of the novel. ‘The Engagements’ is a true pleasure to read, and a wonderful and well-written novel I highly recommend to anyone looking for their next read. I personally can’t wait to pick up the author’s other works!