Welcome to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Paris and . . . Cleveland, the settings for J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel, The Engagements, in which all the strands of the story dance around the Maypole of the diamond engagement ring.
Leaping back and forth through the decades, we have four mini-stories:
James, a paramedic, chases down blood and drunkenness in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a suburb he could never afford to live in. In fact, he and his wife can barely keep it together the crumbling house they can afford;
Delphine, a Frenchwoman, exacts revenge on a faithless lover before she catches a plane out of New York for good;
Evelyn, a pearls-and-cashmere housewife, makes one last effort to save the marriage of her disappointing son; and,
Kate, an anti-marriage granola mom, grapples with family on the weekend of her cousin’s wedding. It’s a two-groom affair, this wedding.
Wait. Are we sure the diamond is “traditional”?
By now, we have our doubts because Sullivan introduces us to Frances Gerety, the Philadelphia ad whiz who coined the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever.”
Gerety ironically, never wanted a husband or children. If she had, they might have been hard to come by. In her time, “the gentler sex was supposed to be demure, quiet and pocket-sized” and Frances could not be anything but her tall and talented self.
Frances’ story feels more like a magazine profile piece than part of a novel. We get a glimpse of what it was like to be a career woman in the ‘40s. She can’t join the country club, where the men cement business relationships. And at a company picnic:
“She was used to seeing these men in a restaurant at lunch, sipping scotch with their ties loosened, cracking crude jokes about the backsides of various members of the typing pool. To see how they behaved around their families was strange. Funny. Sobering. . . .
“Most of the wives were nice enough, though she knew some of them pitied her and she pitied them right back. . . . They asked her silly questions, like who she telephoned when she came across a mouse or a very large spider in her basement.”
In the office with Frances, we see how the sausage is made. Her big account is the De Beers Diamond company, which needs to get rid of a lot of diamonds. Ordinary Americans, the kind who eat meatloaf on Mondays, think diamonds are for rich people. But by the time Frances and crew work their ad-magic, James, Delphine, Evelyn, Kate, you, me and everybody think it’s not true love unless there’s a diamond.
Sullivan works hard to get the history right, sometimes too hard. Writers attempt to establish time and place by letting a character, in thought or dialogue, mention some current event. In Engagements, we sometimes get whole newspaper sections, editorials and all, woven into scenes right along with “Please pass the butter” and “You think maybe you’re too sleepy to drive?”
But in the end, Sullivan yanked the string that pulled all the story strands together. And I said, “Oh, wow. Didn’t see that coming.”
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