The framing device of this novel is a good one: in 1947, Mary Frances Gerety, a young, single, female copywriter in a New York ad agency coined a phrase on behalf of the De Beers diamond monopoly: ‘A Diamond is Forever’ – and created a capitalist tradition which tells us that romantic love has to be expressed and displayed through an expensive piece of jewellery. That Frances herself never bought into the dream she helped create is an irony not lost in this book: ‘Frances wasn’t sure a diamond was any more valuable than any other gem, but once she started writing it, it became a fact.’
So this starts out as a nice deconstruction of advertising as capitalist propaganda, and gently exposes the way in which our personal dreams and fears are shaped by, and given emotional currency through, the needs of big business.
But after hooking us into Frances’ story, this book then wanders off into a series of different tales, widely separated by time and given to us in fragmented sections, all of which failed to hold my interest. All the stories are linked through the idea of marriage whether it’s the breakdown and divorce, or the setting up of a wedding – and they’re all fairly pedestrian (‘Sheila’s parents had loaned them the money for the mould removal. She said they probably didn’t expect to be paid back’ – yawn...).
This is a long book at 460 pages and tends to lack the incision of the opening episode. So there’s a really good idea here, and I liked Frances’ story (a little like Peggy from Mad Men) – but the body of the book is overwhelmingly dull and lacklustre. This could have been a much stronger book with some tight editing and circumspect pruning – at the moment all the good stuff feels muffled beneath a lot of tedium. A book of wasted potential.
"A Diamond is Forever" has become one of those advertising slogans that gets burned into a young American's brain forever. I know just one person who got engaged without a diamond ring and I suspect most people do think that diamond engagement rings were always the standard. Not so - certainly not until Mary Frances Gerety penned those four lines and Ayer built an advertising campaign around engagement. In The Engagements, Sullivan takes a few wildly different relationships from the 1960s to the present day and explores love, with and without diamond rings, throughout the last fifty years.
I had really high expectations for this book when I started it and I'm pleased to say it met all of them. I liked the many different perspectives on love, and particularly the focus on how little an engagement ring really means. A diamond may last forever, but it's the couple that gives it meaning. Some of these couples do, and some of them don't, but all of them have interesting, engaging stories that emerge believably from Sullivan's pen. As she cycles between characters, she accomplished an amazing feat for me - I liked all of the different eras. I was interested in the outcome of all of the marriages.
I also just liked seeing how different each of the relationships was. One of the couples has been together for years, and it's their son who is having the difficulty with his marriage. Another of the characters has left her husband for a whirlwind engagement, while a third adores his wife but can't afford the diamond he believes she deserves. And one of the characters in Frances Gerety herself, who despite writing such a line, never married. Instead, she remained a "career woman" and remained at Ayer throughout her working life. It's a window into a different world, as she's a single woman with a steady, surprisingly typical office job, in contrast to the numerous other relationships in the book. Plus, we get an idea of how advertising works, and how these companies managed to completely change perceptions in a way that has lasted decades. Ayer doesn't even exist now but people are still buying diamond engagement rings.
While there are a number of failed relationships, Sullivan doesn't shy away from the successful ones, so this book isn't at all depressing. Instead I found it uplifting, sweet, and thoughtful, with a measure of gravity; every relationship is different and has its own meaning and its own outcome. I loved the way that, in the end, all of the relationships were tied together and very cleverly so.
The Engagements is a fantastic book, a great story of a little period of history and how much relationships have changed throughout. Highly recommended.
The Engagements is a captivating, delightful novel that invites us into the lives of various characters and spans the years from the 1940s to the present day. In it, the author looks at the significance and history of the diamond engagement ring as a recognised token of love, devotion and commitment, at different attitudes to marriage, at different women and men and the choices they make, and the emotions which connect us all. The underlying or main thread if you like, is the story of Mary Frances Gerety, an independent unmarried female copywriter at a time (1947) when this was exceptional, and a wonder in the advertising world - working for the dominant advertising agency, she was tasked with convincing everyone that every woman who was to be married needed a diamond ring, and she brought us the famous words A Diamond is Forever.
'The diamond would last even if the love did not. Even though youth would not.'
I found it fascinating to discover more about her through the author's portrait of her, to learn about her personal life and work. Though much of her life's work was devoted to something idealised as the height of romance and commitment, her own personal life was somewhat of a contrast to this; 'she found her job far more exciting than any man she had met...' Frances has to contend with the expectations of her day, when women married and ran the home; other women observed that 'It's not natural for a woman of a certain age to want to work in a stuffy office with men all day...' so her career and her being single went against this, and others viewed her with suspicion, yet she seemed content. I loved her confidence, her drive, talent and self-belief. Many moments stood out as I read, especially a comment she makes with regard to trying to join the all-male golf club. She watches as other women, even those who had worked, were more or less forced to stop once married. And later in her life, she sees how women are changing and taking chances that were never there for her.
The novel then introduces us to the other strands; there is Evelyn in 1972, James in 1987, Delphine in 2003 and Kate in 2012. Evelyn has been happily married for many years but is concerned about her son's behaviour in his marriage, James is a man devoted to his wife and trying to do the right thing but beset by financial problems, Delphine had a steady marriage but has left France for America with her lover, and Kate who 'was distrustful of marriage' and is happy to live with Dan. Each relationship is different, whether a marriage, an affair, one partner richer or poorer, yet there are emotions, and difficulties, joys and sadness in common for them all.
The narrative is skillfully structured, building together a little from each of the different stories, stories that take us back and forth in time, that illustrate the choices people make in life and love, about passion, loyalty, independence, commitment. There are five stories, and five parts to the novel, and each part takes us back to each story once. The years covered by novel allow the author to illustrate the changes in marriage, in attitudes, from traditional to modern values, from divorce being almost impossible to becoming an everyday occurrence.
I adored this novel and I absolutely didn't want it to end. I was swept up in each of the different story strands and I couldn't wait to return to each of them. I took a photo of the paperback copy I read because it just shows how many sentences or events or elements of the prose really struck me or resonated, and which I tagged to refer back to; there were so many in this book. I felt that each of the stories was strong and absorbing; they were each strong tales in their own right and brought together they made for a brilliant read. I wondered if I would be able to keep each of the stories and all the characters in my head as I read, because of the way the narrative shifted, but I found this worked well and each tale, and the primary characters within it, were distinctive and memorable.
I think readers will react differently to the stories depending on their experience and opinions; this would be a great book for discussion. It would also be a wonderful book to take on holiday and get lost in. I escaped into this story and was absorbed; I didn't want to be interrupted or distracted from this book, it was the type of read for me that it both an escape and reminded me of the great enjoyment that comes from a book that you really 'click' with, and it was also an intelligent, thought-provoking read.
I really looked forward to picking it up again every time, and I found that the characters and their lives were in my thoughts even when I wasn't reading it. I found them all interesting and fully formed, and there were things I was drawn to in each of them - Frances' drive in her work, Evelyn's love of her grandchildren and her love of books, plus her feelings about her ring, very similar to how I feel about jewelery and my ring; 'She had never been much of a jewelry person, but her ring was the exception. She loved it.'
Then, James' devotion to his family, Delphine's experience of living in another country, though I think I identified with Kate most of all, and some of the thoughts and beliefs she holds are things that I often think about so it was great to see them represented here through this character.
The author picks up on several significant moments in the background as she narrates her characters' lives; we hear about precious belongings stolen in WWII, about Vietnam, September 11th, a recession, Iraq; this novel is sweeping in scope but always ultimately focused on the intricacies and beautiful observations about the characters themselves, their thoughts and behaviour. I liked the different locations, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Paris, they added depth to the lives being played out. There are other themes and ideas too; the beauty and joy of music, the influence of modern technology on a marriage, the struggle for equality for all who want to be with, and make a commitment to, their beloved partner whatever their sexuality.
I'm always a bit nervous about longer novels, will it be worth the investment of time as a reader? Plus, sometimes, the synopsis of a novel doesn't always totally hook you, and with this one I wasn't totally sure if it would be for me, so I was ever so pleasantly surprised when I found I genuinely loved the story; this was certainly worth my time. I realise I sound very enthusiastic but that's because I enjoyed it so much, a standout read for me and a book I'll be keeping on my shelves for years to come. In the novel, J. Courtney Sullivan writes that, when Frances was studying, 'like everybody else, she was planning to write the Great American Novel.' Well, this is certainly a very good one.
Five characters, separated in time, and apparently without connection - they do have one and
you soon work out what it is. It is 1972 and Evelyn is a well to do grandmother, still in love
with her husband but absolutely devasted by her son's recent abandonment of his own wife and
children. In 1987 James is a down on his luck ambulance driver, working the night shift on
Christmas Eve in the hope of shoveling his family out of their mounting debt. In 2003, Delphine
is a parisian who married for dull stability and has recently left her husband for a young
wild violin virtuso in New York City - only to find he has cheated on her. In 2012 Kate is a
liberal activist who does not believe in marriage, rails against blood diamonds and the whole
wedding industrial complex and is trying her level best to raise her daughter in an egalitarian
way, today she has to set aside all those feelings to celebrate the gay wedding of her beloved
cousin. The characters come alive and OK the connection is a little trite but the chararacters
certainly do not suffer because of it.
Mary Francis Gerety is featured in the book and unlike the fictional characters she was real person
who came up with the slogan A DIAMOND IS FOREVER and basically invented the tradition of the
diamond engagemant ring. A really good read - as are all her books.
on 17 June 2013
The Engagements, as you have probably already guessed, is a novel which focuses on engagements and marriage. Five separate characters - Frances, Evelyn, Delphine, Kate and James - tell the story of relationships and marriages in several different decades of the twenty and twenty-first centuries. Many authors, especially those who particularly appeal to a female audience, take a similar approach in terms of multiple characters with separate storylines and sometimes when I read novels in that style, I find that the characters start to merge and become rather `samey'. However, The Engagements is a highly engrossing read and J. Courtney Sullivan weaves a fascinating subject into the fabric of her novel: the way in which diamonds have become an essential ingredient in the western world's view of an ideal engagement and marriage.
One of the characters in the novel, Frances Gerety, is based on the real-life Frances Gerety who, working as young copywriter for De Beers in the late 1940s, coined the world-famous slogan, "A Diamond is Forever". During the time of the Great Depression, diamonds weren't popular. In fact, as J. Courtney Sullivan writes in a New York Times article, "How Americans Learned to Love Diamonds", most Americans viewed diamonds as an extravagance which only the richest people could afford. It is quite astonishing to realize the enormous power that marketing has over us and the fact that it was advertising which entrenched the diamond engagement ring in our society. The analysis of this enthralling topic, along with engaging (no pun intended!) characters, has resulted in this readable and very absorbing novel.
The five threads that intertwine to make up this novel, the first I've read by J. Courtney Sullivan, all deal with marriage to one extent or another, even if only to demonstrate the social pressures of being an unmarried woman, or how marriage can feel like a straitjacket until you leave it. The novel opens with the real-life figure of Mary Frances Gerety, who scribbles down the timeless slogan 'A Diamond is Forever' as her deadline approaches at the advertising agency she works for, Ayers, unaware that it will be hailed as the greatest success of her career and the force behind the diamond engagement ring tradition. After this prologue, we switch between the stories of four couples: Evelyn, who is struggling with her son's infidelity to her beloved daughter-in-law and hurt by her husband's indifference; James, who can never quite make ends meet as he struggles to support his wife and son as a paramedic; Delphine, who has left her husband Henri and her beloved Paris to chase a new relationship in New York; and Kate, who is in a long-term relationship but has sworn never to marry, and yet finds herself an essential part of her friends' gay wedding. Interwoven with these stories, which move from 1927 to the present day, we follow Frances' career and her struggles as an unmarried woman in a period when this was still a major social stigma. As Frances puts it herself, remembering how, as a child, she felt she had to marry because of the way her family treated her unmarried aunt, Doreen: 'Everyone acted like Aunt Doreen was insane for choosing a spinsterhood full of novels and lapdogs over a life of domestic bliss... For a long time, Frances had simply believed what they said, but as a teenager it dawned on her that Aunt Doreen was perfectly content. It was everyone else who couldn't understand how.'
The publishers compare this novel to Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife and Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding in the blurb, and although this advertising choice is not Sullivan's fault, it added to my sense that this novel was punching a little above its weight. As a light, entertaining read, it delivers admirably on the whole, although there are a few issues. It is overlong, and a couple of the threads are less effective than others, in particular, Delphine's tale, which presents her as both a thoroughly unlikeable character and a walking cliche. As this thread was set in 2003, I found it simply unbelievable that a supposedly sophisticated and worldly Frenchwoman wouldn't know that you have to tip New York taxi drivers, and, indeed, behave as if she had never suspected there was a world outside Paris. On the other hand, several of the other characters' stories display a genuine warmth that is essential but rare in lightweight 'beach' fiction; I particularly adored James's tale, and found myself rooting for him to find a happy ending, and Kate is also a lovely and interesting character. Even Evelyn's 'old-fashioned' views of infidelity are sympathetic as depicted. However, it is this warmth that is both the novel's strength and weakness. The majority of the arcs have inconclusive endings, and while this would work in a more literary novel, the more simplistic storytelling here made me long for the loose ends to be firmly tied up. My overall impression was of a novel that falls slightly uncomfortably between genre and literary fiction, as if Sullivan wasn't quite sure where the narrative would best fit, and the plot device that links all the stories near the end only added to this confusion.
Having said this, I would still recommend The Engagements, especially for a holiday, and I have been checking out Sullivan's earlier novels, Commencement and Maine - so perhaps the sincerity of her writing wins out after all. And if her determination to cover all possible angles of the marriage question can feel a little moralistic at times, it is certainly refreshing to read a light-hearted read that doesn't portray marriage as the answer to everyone's problems.
on 4 August 2013
Every girl's dream is to have a diamond engagement ring, right? It's traditional, it's a token of affection, it's important, one should spend two month's salary on a ring otherwise you're not respecting your wife to be ...er no.
The idea of a diamond engagement ring is a marketing construct, thought up by an advertising agency working on behalf of De Beers, an international company who held - hold - a virtual monopoly on the diamond trade and who will spend, spend, spend in order to convince the masses of the necessity, the need for a luxury item with a fake heritage. And the particular person who came up with "A diamond is forever"? She was a copywriter called (Mary) Frances Geraghty who never married.
A fictionalised version of Frances' story is included here, along with a lot of background about the diamond industry and its successful impact worldwide on the hearts and minds of the population. It's a little clunky at times, but really interesting reading. I knew a little of the story, but it still came as a little bit of a shock and surprise to me and thinking about it, I can see where other products have ploughed a similar furrow.
The other stories that weave in and out are examples of relationships throughout the 20th century - from the shock of divorce in the 60s, to struggling suburbanites in 80s Boston USA through to co-habitees and finally a gay male couple. They are very loosely intertwined and some are more engaging than others. As a Brit, it surprised me that couples just living together, in a committed relationship with a child are not actually all that common and come under a fair amount of pressure from society to marry - I wasn't sure if this was a plot device or reality and then I looked at my US friends and family, and their children's lives and I know one set of "bidie ins" and quite a lot of young (very young by UK standards) marrieds...
The stories are pleasant enough and well written, but I did find myself skipping and picking up the stories later and only those of the couples I liked. I did try and read the final chapters concerning each relationship and in most cases finding them unsatisfying - a real feeling of "is this it?" I do think the book as a whole could have been sharper and more nuanced, it was a little broad brush for me, and as I said before, the diamond information felt a little clunky and shoved in.
An okay read, but not a game changing one.
The Engagements contains several intertwined stories about various characters, and is set over nearly a century, from 1927 to 2012. The most obvious link between the stories is that diamond jewellery inspires life changing thoughts and events.
I am not that interested in diamonds or jewellery normally, but I enjoyed the way in which the social history of diamonds was part of this novel, including a fictional narrative about a real person - Mary Frances Gerety was the advertising executive who coined the hugely successful and enduring slogan "A Diamond is Forever" and the story of her life is included. There is a struggling young couple in 1980s Boston, a woman who is distraught when her son's marriage breaks up about the possibility of losing contact with her daughter in law and grandchildren, and a French woman,called Delphine. Perhaps I identified most with Kate, who sees no need for marriage as an institution but finds herself supporting gay friends who want a traditional wedding with diamond rings. Then one goes missing...
Many of the narratives were very separate until nearly the end of the novel when it became clearer how some of them fitted together, though I thought Sullivan managed not to fall into a trap of contriving too much coincidence - some stories remained linked only by theme rather than some astonishing revelation.
I quite enjoyed The Engagements and plan to read Sullivan's previous novel Maine soon.
I haven't read any of J Courtney Sullivan's other novels and was really not sure what to expect when The Engagements dropped through my letterbox. I found it quite an interesting read, the characterisation is excellent and I did like the idea of interweaving different stories together to produce the main plot. However, there were times when I felt my mind wandering, and to be honest, I did find the character of Mary Frances somewhat hard to engage with. Despite this, I do feel that the subject matter is fascinating, and I was especially interested in how a woman who was not married, and not really interested in marriage, could sell the idea of diamond engagement rings to a whole generation of women.
I enjoyed the other stories that link to the main plot,although there were characters that I liked better than others, in much the same way as a reader usually enjoys one or two stories in a collection.
The Engagements gives the reader a lot to think about. It's about love and relationships and the power of advertising. It considers the role of women in professional situations, and the change in culture over the years.
I enjoyed Sullivan's "Maine" and this book was just as much pleasure to read.
Overarching the five stories is the link of the diamond ring: made popular from the mid-1940s by Ayers for DeBeers the diamond became the symbol of engagement and marriage that is a "must have" for everyone. Here Ms Sullivan explores just what that means for four American families in the 70s, 80s, 00s and 10s. Each strand has one central character and through that person we look at what a diamond ring comes to stand for. Between them all is the true story of the woman who coined the phrase "A Diamond is Forever".
If you like, it is a story that has many facets, each reflecting a different light on the situation. This is, in fact, one narrative carried along through all five stories. The link isn't revealed until late on, but you know it is there and it is a nice little mind-poser to work out just what it is. It is a neat little tie-up.
For anyone who likes the family saga type novel this is a great one, but anyone who likes a good story well told will enjoy this.