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.
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 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.
Diamonds: they're forever, they're a girl's best friend, they're nature's rarest gift, but how did they become such a potent cultural symbol - and what exactly do they symbolise? Do they really stand for the perfection and permanence to which every marriage aspires? Or are they a patriarchal shackle, for which a woman must compromise her dreams and her independence? More cynically still, are they ultimately a symbol not of love but of betrayal? Or are they nothing more than a morally questionable bauble, which we have all been manipulated into wanting by De Beers' spectacularly insidious advertising campaigns?
In 'The Engagements', J Courtney Sullivan sets out to explore these themes though the lives - and diamonds - of four couples, as well as the maverick (female, unmarried) advertising executive who in 1947 first coined the slogan 'A Diamond Is Forever'. The five plotlines unfold independently, each in its own timeframe, and eventually intertwine towards the end of the book.
For me, the tricksy structure made the book quite difficult to get into. The juddering jumps in time from one plotline to the next made it hard for any of the stories to develop much narrative momentum. Worse, several of the lead characters (notably James the two-fisted Irish paramedic and Delphine the walking compendium of French cliches) were too one-dimensional and dull to engage any real emotional involvement. The novel drifts along amiably, buoyed up by Ms Sullivan's crisp and precise style, but ultimately I found this quite a shallow and unsatisfying read that in 500 pages didn't really go anywhere. Having said that, it does raise some interesting questions, and even if it fails to answer them, 'The Engagements' would probably provoke a lively evening of discussion for any Book Club that chooses to read it.