The Engagements

by J. Courtney Sullivan

(Doubleday, $26.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

J. Courtney Sullivan has two New York Times best-selling novels to her credit: “Commencement” and “Maine, which earned a Best Book of the Year designation by Time magazine and was listed as a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Sullivan has also contributed to such publications as The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and New York magazine and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, the Official Borough of Talented Young American Writers. (OK, I made that up, but you know what I mean.)

What is this book about?

Diamonds, and their ostensible forever-ness.

And passion. And love. And whether marriage sustains those emotions or eventually snuffs them out…or both. Told in five stories, beginning in the 1940s with a young advertising copywriter who fears that finding a man might mean ending her burgeoning career (echoes of Peggy on “Mad Men,” anyone?),  based on real-life Frances Gerety, who coined the everlasting tag line for DeBeers diamonds – say it with me now: “A Diamond Is Forever.” The book goes on to examine four couples with very different experiences of romance, fidelity and eternal love

Why you’ll like it:

Multiple  romances, plus a dollop of feminist inklings, for the price of one, linked together by that expensive and still sought-after symbol of commitment, the diamond engagement ring. Sullivan gracefully uses the ring to link her stories, told with heart and a generous understanding of what love can do for us and to us. Easy to read and very, well, engaging. These stories, set in different decades, offer a clever and moving exploration of the things we do – or don’t, or won’t or can’t – for love.

What others are saying:

“Inspired by the real-life story of Frances Gerety, [who was] the 1940s copywriter who penned the ‘A Diamond is Forever’ tagline for DeBeers, Sullivan riffs on the fragile state of marriage through a clever series of loosely connected vignettes.  At the heart of each episode lies that sparkly symbol of romantic commitments . . . given a sharp and crystalline coherence by virtue of Sullivan’s sometimes bold, sometimes nuanced improvisation on the resonance of the diamond engagement ring,” says Booklist.

In The Washington Post, Ron Charles writes: “In Sullivan’s easy, unadorned style, The Engagements is a delightful marriage of cultural research and literary entertainment—the perfect book to ruin your wedding plans. It’s hard to describe The Engagements without making it sound like a lot of clunky exposition and domestic construction: five settings, dozens of characters, and all the attendant social and political contexts that need to be built for these separate plots. Don’t worry: Even jumping from story to story every few pages, Sullivan handles all the details elegantly, and the situations are surprisingly distinct, adorned with the unique elements of the times and even the disparate ways people spoke… “

Library Journal says: “Mary Frances Gerety’s greatest contribution to American romance, not to mention the jewelry industry, was the tagline she wrote for her employer, the N.W. Ayer advertising agency: “A diamond is forever.” Under the umbrella of the real-life Frances’s career, Sullivan weaves the stories of four couples bound together over decades by one opulent and iconic diamond engagement ring. We begin in the 1970s with the Pearsalls, reeling from their immature son’s abandonment of his family for a flagrant affair. In the 1980s, EMT James and nurse Sheila struggle in a stagnant Boston economy while working low-income jobs. In the early aughts, a beautiful French woman abandons her husband as she is consumed by passion for a brilliant and much younger American violinist, to whom she becomes engaged—until his behavior sends her on a rampage. A decade later, Kate and Dan eschew marriage while they prepare for the same-sex nuptials of Kate’s gay cousin. VERDICT Sullivan . . .  has written an intricate, beautifully timed novel, so delicious in its gradual unfolding that readers will want to reread it immediately to enjoy the fully realized ties.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Is a diamond really forever? So Sullivan . . . asks in her third novel, which explores the familiar territory of people who can’t quite find the old connections but keep looking for them all the same. Frances Gerety, a real person whom Sullivan enlists at the outset of her tale, had a daunting task way back in 1947: She had to cook up an advertising tagline for De Beers that would convince Americans to purchase diamond engagement rings, hitherto “considered just absolutely money down the drain.” Sullivan’s story takes off from there, diamonds forming a leitmotif in ingeniously connected stories that span generations. . . . in Sullivan’s depiction of the world, every character harbors regrets over roads not taken. Some are stronger than others, and many are devoted to things more than people . . . Does money ever buy any of them happiness? Not really, but it does score a few carats. A modern update of The Spoils of Poynton; elegant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.”

“Any one of the five stories of The Engagements could have been a novel in itself. Taken together, though, they rather brilliantly represent different facets of marriage — and not always the bright and shiny ones . . . Captivating . . . Clever . . . Sullivan’s writing is smooth as she takes the reader back and forth in time and in and out of relationships; by the end, you understand, as one character notes, that marriages can come and go, and it’s only the diamond that lasts,” says the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

When is it available?

If you think you’ll like it, put a hold on it. “The Engagements” is sparkling on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park Branch.

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