“A Diamond is Forever” was one of the most enduring advertising slogans of the 20th Century. The female copywriter who penned that phrase in 1947 is at the center of J. Courtney Sullivan’s third novel, “The Engagements.”
Advertisers market the diamond as a symbol of commitment and status for couples seeking to marry. Sullivan explores the many dimensions of commitment and status in a sprawling, multi-generational work that spans nearly 100 years.
Sullivan looks at marriage through four separate couples whose sagas span the decades from the 1930s to 2012. Frances Gerety, the copywriter, is the glue that holds the story together. Gerety came up with the famous line in the middle of the night after a boozy dinner with a female colleague. She wasn’t sure it worked, but her bosses at N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency decided to use it for their client, diamond behemoth De Beers.
After she introduces Gerety, Sullivan shifts to Evelyn and Gerald Pearsall, who are living in comfortable retirement in 1972 when their son announces he is leaving his wife and two daughters for another woman. We meet Delphine, a 40-year-old French woman who leaves her loveless marriage with her business partner, Henri, in 2012 to run off to New York City with a much younger American violinist. In 1987, James McKeen and his wife, Sheila, are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their children, while their house is falling apart. And, early in the second decade of the 21st Century, Kate, a “conscientious marriage objector,” and her partner, Dan, are raising a young daughter in the Hudson Valley, but have no intention of marrying.
Sullivan weaves the four stories together, always returning to Gerety, whose story I found compelling. A female in the male dominated advertising industry, Gerety is denied the promotions and perks a man with her achievements would have received. Yet, she soldiers on and gives the reader a sober-eyed account of the struggles of high-achieving women in the middle of the last century.
The other character I like is Kate, who fights for her principles and rails against consumerism. Kate makes her views on marriage clear: “Marriage is a construct. 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.”
Despite Kate’s views on the institution of marriage, she finds herself helping her gay cousin, Jeff, plan an elaborate wedding to his partner, Toby.
What the reader ultimately come to learn through Sillivan’s story is that the seduction of the diamond, with its allure and promise of years of happiness, masks what marriage (or any long-term relationship) is all about. Relationships require commitment, love, and hard work and happiness is not assured.
Having enjoyed Sullivan’s first two novels, “Commencement,” and “Maine,” I believe “The Engagements” shows Sullivan’s growth as a writer and her willingness to tackle more ambitious themes and more complicated stories.