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Book Cover Image: The Engagements by J. Courtney SullivanTitle: The Engagements
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
ISBN: 9780307958716
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Fiction
Origins: Knopf Doubleday
Release Date: 11 June 2013
Bottom Line: Simple and lovely story about the many facets of relationships

“Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years–forty years since he slipped off her first wedding ring and put his own in its place. Delphine knows both sides of love–the ecstatic, glorious highs of seduction and the bitter, spiteful fury that descends when it’s over. James, a paramedic who works the night shift, knows his wife’s family thinks she could have done better. Kate, partnered with Dan for ten years, has seen every kind of wedding–from the Nantucket beach wedding to the Irish castle wedding–and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own. And Mary Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter, knows exactly what marriage is: it’s a diamond ring on a girl’s finger–and it’s her job to make sure everyone believes that. Weaving these lives together, Sullivan gives us a sharply observed, witty, irresistible portrait of the thorny, joyful, and complicated union that is marriage.”

Thoughts: The diamond engagement ring – that traditional symbol of love and commitment. Commercials would have one believe that only a person’s two months’ salary can prove the depths of a person’s feelings for another. Others use the love of grandparents or parents to showcase their feelings. The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan revolves around this ubiquitous first step towards marriage as it follows the stories of five very different people, including the woman who established the phrase “Diamonds are Forever.” This beautiful, simple collection of stories connects in unexpected but appealing ways that emphasize just how truly lasting diamond engagement rings truly are, even if the love is fleeting.

The cast of characters in The Engagements is every bit as varied as diamond engagement rings themselves. Evelyn is the figurative matriarch of the group. Having been married the longest, she understands the importance of tradition and the work involved to make a happy and lasting marriage. Evelyn is the type of character all readers will love because she is so humble and gentle. James is the symbolic son, working to make a better life for his young family while trying to show his wife how much he appreciates and loves her. Readers will appreciate the depths of his affections and the sacrifices he makes for his family. Delphine is the embittered older daughter. Having forsaken her marriage for the allure of an affair with an adoring younger man, she now faces down her fury when all of her dreams go awry. She is the character that will make readers laugh and cheer as she enacts her revenge on her young lover. Kate is the younger daughter who has opted to follow her own path in life and frowns upon every convention regarding the institution of marriage. She is the most polarizing of all the characters. Her self-righteousness and intractability regarding her opinions about marriage and raising children, as well as the fate of the world are off-putting and will be a turnoff for most readers.

Meanwhile, Mary Frances is the unconscious glue that ties them all together through her fierce promotions of diamonds and her creation of an ad campaign that still exists today. The elements of history used throughout The Engagements, especially as they surround Mary Frances’ real-life advertising career for DeBeers, are fascinating. While it is no secret how much advertising drives consumerism and that companies have used ads to establish many a cherished tradition over the years, discovering just how the “sacred” tradition of giving a diamond engagement ring started is eye-opening as well as a bit disconcerting. While it does not lessen the sentimentality behind such baubles, it does make a person think twice about the tradition and all diamond ad campaigns.

Ms. Sullivan sets the individual characters across the decades. In doing so, she highlights the changes in attitudes towards engagement rings and marriage over the years. In addition, there is a subtle interweaving of the characters and their stories which is not apparent in the beginning but is delightful to watch unfold. In fact, these connections are so understated that speed readers or those who tend to skim may miss key details which will prevent them from connecting the dots later in the story. To miss them is to miss seeing the fascinating ties that bind these eclectic characters together and which provide the story with much of its heart.

The Engagements is simply a lovely story that uses historical contexts to both instruct readers and to establish the spine of the story about the dynamics of relationships. Ms. Sullivan’s writing is subtle but effective, creating strong, realistic characters and even stronger emotional reactions. The net result is a delightful story that educates, entertains, and proves that there is no such thing as a standard for relationships.
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