The New Maine Times Book Review: The Engagements

Posted Tuesday, May 6, 2014 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: The Engagements
By J. Courtney Sullivan.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
383 pages, $26.95.
ISBN 978-0-307-95871-6.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
Commentator Barbara De Angelis once explained the concept of marriage:  “Marriage is not a noun; it’s a verb.  It isn’t something you get.  It’s something you do.  It’s the way you love your partner every day.”  And Courtney Sullivan’s newest novel cleverly illustrates exactly what that really means.
THE ENGAGEMENTS is Sullivan’s third novel after her best-selling and award-winning COMMENCEMENT (Vintage, 2010) and MAINE (Vintage, 2012).  Her two earlier novels both dealt carefully and colorfully with the complexities of family, friend, and lover relationships, but this one handles a more ticklish and sensitive subject.  This is a penetrating and revealing story of marriage, love, and relationships spanning fifty years.
She uses four couples to tell this story, all tied together by Americans’ artificial obsession with diamonds as the measurement of one’s love for another.  However, the diamond angle focuses on Frances Gerety, the female ad agency copywriter who in 1947 created the iconic and still valid advertisement slogan – “A Diamond is Forever.”  Sullivan weaves the history of diamond jewelry advertising through the decades as the tag that shaped the public’s accepted image of the diamond as the symbol of commitment and devotion.
Then she introduces the four couples whose lives are decades apart, but who will be connected in tender and subtly surprising ways.  In 1972 Evelyn and Gerald have been married forty years, the result of an unusual friendship and a tragic accident.  And they are furious with their son for divorcing his adorable wife.

In 1987 James and Sheila are barely scraping by economically, deep in debt, with James knowing his wife married beneath her, feeling guilty for not being a better family provider, so desperate to hang on to her that he commits an unforgiveable sin.

Delphine is married to Henri in 2003, but has a passionate love affair with an American musician.  She leaves her husband, and explains to her lover:  “I was never in love with him, not like this.  But it’s not just about being in love.”  And then she realizes she’s made a dreadful mistake.

And in 2012 free-spirit Kate loves her companion, Don, but hates the institution of marriage for its blatant commercialism and clinging legalities.  She vows she will never marry anybody.  Losing a friend’s wedding ring, however, will cause her to reevaluate the meaning of such a symbol and why it can be a powerful stimulus.

This is a deftly woven plot that will bind these couples to each other in various ways – through children, through good and bad decisions, through lost diamond rings, and through the unscripted adventures and chances that life suddenly offers.

Through these relationships Sullivan convincingly portrays the many facets of love and marriage (and diamonds, too), once again proving that men think women will never change and women think men will change – and both are wrong.

This is a thoughtful, astute story that will touch the nerves of more than a few readers.

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