The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
Every now and again, I will close a book for the last time with a “Wow.” It happened when I read My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, and again when I read Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. That was the last time, though, until I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements. I still can’t think of a better word than “wow” to describe it.
The novel is made up of five different stories, each taking place during a different time period; each with a connection to the others. I, however, didn’t fully realize the connections until the last part of the novel, and I have decided I need to re-read it to see if the connections were foreshadowed earlier and I was just too amazed by the present story I was in to notice.
What I would consider to be the “main” story, only because its theme has an overarching presence throughout all the others, is that of Mary Frances Gerety. It’s the story of the real life Gerety, an advertising copywriter for N.W. Ayer and Son. She is an account executive for De Beers, and one night she hastily scribbles the line “A Diamond is Forever,” and the engagement and diamond ring world is turned on its head.
The other stories revolve around different characters in different stages of life and love:
- Evelyn has been married to Gerald for 40 years, but they came together under tragic circumstances. Evelyn was engaged to his best friend, Nathaniel. After he’s in a terrible car accident, Evelyn marries him in the hospital, but is widowed a few days later. In their present story, set in the 1970s, they are dealing with their son, Teddy, who has decided to leave his wife and children for a woman he met in Florida.
- James is a night-shift paramedic who is struggling with debt. He wants to provide more for his wife, Sheila, and their two sons, but can’t seem to get ahead financially as house repairs and other expenses keep looming. He knows Sheila’s family thinks James isn’t good enough for her, and he wants nothing more than to prove them wrong. Their story is set in the 1980s on Christmas Eve, when, while at work, James makes a hasty decision.
- Delphine is a French woman who left her husband Henri, with whom she ran an instrument repair and sales shop with her husband, for the much younger P.J., a violin prodigy. However, after discovering he’s been unfaithful with her, she begins to question her decision to come to New York with him and begins to exact her revenge.
- Kate doesn’t believe in marriage, feeling the romantic side of it is overshadowing the true vicious nature of its purpose in ancient years past. Her partner, Dan, is supportive of her decision to not get married, but it seems no one else in her life is. Her story is set in 2012 in New York after gay marriage is made legal, and she’s unhappily roped into planning her cousin Jeffrey’s marriage to his partner, Toby.
Until I got to the end of the novel and read the author’s notes, I had no idea the story about Frances was true. I am in awe of this woman who went so far beyond typical gender norms, and I can’t wait to research her more. The fictional characters, though, were hit and miss for me. I loved Evelyn and felt her pain as she witnessed her son destroying a marriage to a woman she loved as a daughter. I found Kate to be a little too hypocritical for my taste (she hates that people judge her for not getting married, yet turns around and judges those who choose to wed).
All in all, Sullivan has created a wonderful story that really hits on the various stages of love and relationships. I found so much of it to ring true in many aspects of my life, and I know others will, too. This is the perfect book for fans of her previous novels, or those who are looking for someone similar to the likes of Jodi Picoult or Mary McCarthy.
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