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Review: 'The Engagements' by J. Courtney Sullivan

Among the N. W. Ayer & Son advertising slogans that shaped the way 20th century Americans thought — "When It Rains It Pours" (Morton Salt), "Reach Out and Touch Someone" (AT&T), "Be All You Can Be"(U.S. Army) — few are as indelible as "A Diamond is Forever."


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The words were penned in the early morning hours of a day in 1947 by a female copywriter named Frances Gerety. The client was De Beers, king of the diamond industry. The line came in a rush — four words to fill the blank signature line beneath a honeymoon ad that read, "May your happiness last as long as your diamond." No one thought much of the tagline at the moment, save for those who complained about its grammar.

But "A Diamond is Forever" would change the way women (and their eager-to-please men) felt about "proper" engagements and marriage traditions. It would provoke a big uptick in diamond sales and survive the winds of change. It would bring Gerety a degree of fame, but not, until the very end, true glory. Nor would Gerety ever marry. She had not sold herself on the elusive promise signaled by that diamond ring.

For her third novel, best-selling author J. Courtney Sullivan ("Commencement" and "Maine") places the indelible diamond slogan and its creator at the heart of a generously populated, multi-generational tale. "The Engagements" is, by turns, a Stephanie Coontz-inspired commentary on marriage (the kind that works, the kind that doesn't, the kind that will never be), a history (of N. W. Ayers and De Beers), and a lost-and-found ring mystery. It is a book of vignettes — short stories set in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, Boston and elsewhere, over a span of many decades.

We meet Evelyn and Gerald, comfortable and long married, whose self-involved son is leaving his wife and children for a specious gold-digger. We meet 40-year-old Delphine, who marries and runs an instrument shop with her best friend, Henri, then runs off with a 23-year-old American violinist after a brief dalliance in Paris, with foreseeably disastrous consequences. We meet James (who hasn't been able to give his wife, Sheila, the ring she deserves), and Jeff and Toby (whose marriage one family cannot abide), and Kate, who has a child with Dan but has sidestepped marriage on all kinds of moral grounds. Through Kate, the "conscientious marriage objector," we see the escalated traditions, social pressures and pompous absurdities that come with marriage. "Marriage is a construct," Kate says. "It's been sold as a way to keep women safe or make their lives better, but for the most part it's been used to keep them down. In Afghanistan today, a woman might be encouraged to marry her rapist."

And always we return to Frances Gerety, a character whose family history, resume and career arc Sullivan steadily traces — sometimes to the exclusion of true character development. Given the fabulous richness of the material — a female copy editor in mid-century Philadelphia, an independent woman with ideas — I found myself yearning for less summary and more soul, metaphor, foreshadowing and deep interaction.

Here, for example, is Frances early on:

Frances had grown up mostly in Philadelphia, comfortable enough but without much extravagance. The family had one servant, a girl named Alberta, who taught her how to bake pies and braid her hair. Frances's father, the son of Irish immigrants, worked as a coal yard superintendent. Her mother's people hailed from Ireland as well, but they had settled in Canada, where they did an impressive business in construction, putting up skyscrapers all over Ontario.

 

And here she is, many pages in:

She had a busy work schedule: after twelve years at Ayer, she was a senior copywriter, the highest position a woman could hold on the creative side. She was active in her church. She lived alone, in an apartment in Drexel Hill. A year ago, she got a Great Dane named Charles, from a breeder friend of her mother's. On weekends, she took him to her parents' farm and let him run to his heart's content while she rode horses and did chores and helped her mother with the most recent litter of baby goats. Her parents were in their early seventies now. It pained her to see them growing old. But for the most part, Frances felt quite pleased with her life.

Still, "The Engagements" moves at a brisk pace; it's a fun story. I grew especially fond of Kate and her cousins Jeff and Toby; her married sister, Meg; her divorced mother; her abiding partner; her daughter who (as it turns out) likes fancy dresses and perhaps even dolls. There's dark and light to Kate, despair and tenderness, a sense of a character still unfolding, complexity. Kate says what she thinks, and then she thinks some more. I love that she gets the last word.

Beth Kephart's 16th book, "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir," will be released in August

"The Engagements"

By J. Courtney Sullivan, Knopf, 377 pages, $26.95

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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