After the Honeymoon
J. Courtney Sullivan
My relationship with bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan’s new novel, The Engagements, started off great: The three-time novelist had me staying up late with her carefully crafted characters and scenarios. The book, which tells the stories of four couples and the woman who coined the phrase “A diamond is forever” for De Beers, is ambitious and long. Clearly, a lot of research went into depicting the worlds of these dissimilar romances.
The main storyline of the adwoman shows the reader just how little anyone thought of romance when creating one of the most famous taglines of all time. The copywriter and her advertising breakthrough are based on the real life of Frances Gerety, the character’s namesake. In the pre-dawn hours, Frances jots down the enduring phrase before a deadline.
In her sections we learn about the world of 1950s advertising from a rare female perspective. I couldn’t help but picture Peggy Olsen from TV’s “Mad Men” as Frances muses, “Usually, when you wrote an ad, you wanted to highlight that something new and exciting had come along. But with De Beers, it was the opposite … diamonds were now an imperative for marriage. Before they got started, diamonds were for the wealthy alone … now everyone and their mother wore one.”
Frances and her slogan, in the shining form of one diamond engagement ring, flash throughout the other stories. The first introduces Evelyn, a happily married woman of propriety who’s shocked when her son takes up with a woman who is not his wife. In another, James struggles with earning enough money to make his family comfortable while mourning lost opportunities. Delphine leaves her native Paris and her steady, boring husband for a younger American. And Kate shuns the institution of marriage in the face of her cousin’s wedding.
During the first half of the nearly 400-page novel, I enjoyed the couples and Frances. As time wore on, my feelings started changing. I grew annoyed that one storyline would switch to another just as I was becoming engaged. I felt more strongly about certain characters (Delphine, Evelyn, Frances) and began to speed-read through the ones that felt slack. They just weren’t pulling their weight anymore. The James and Kate sections were so wrought with minute details that they sometimes read like an exercise in character development.
If the vast amounts of information and description occasionally slow the narrative, they are also the muscle behind the novel’s engaging historical moments. Like a solid relationship, the book is best when the characters and plot work in tandem to propel the reader forward. When we are with Frances as she insists on drinking her dry martinis in a men’s-only club, we feel the anomaly of her role. I hope the question of who exactly constructs the rules of love and marriage stays with readers, but I worry that the minutiae of the book could prevent it. If you are ready to make a commitment, you might enjoy The Engagements.