Thursday, August 8, 2013

"The Engagements," by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan, author of “Commencement” and of “Maine” (see my post of 7/30/11) has a new novel: “The Engagements” (Knopf, 2013). The cover shows a woman’s hand displaying a ring with a huge diamond, and in fact the novel’s main motif is diamonds. The novel tells the stories, in alternating chapters, of four very diverse couples: diverse in time, socioeconomic status, age, personality, and more. In each case, there is a diamond ring involved. The fifth element, interwoven among the chapters about the four couples, is a fictionalized version of the life of a real historical character, Frances Gerety, who worked for an advertising agency and created the advertising line “A diamond is forever.” Her story shows how hard it was for a woman to succeed in business, despite talent, but fortunately her abilities and achievements were eventually recognized. The other stories deal with love, children, death, illness, financial problems, and of course engagement and marriage. The book does not avoid the issue of the destructive and exploitative way that diamonds were, and sometimes still are, mined, and the efforts that were eventually made to ameliorate those conditions. Although the stories are paramount, as they should be in a novel, there is a lot of “content” in the form of issues about women’s lives, business, and political and social struggles and evolution (e.g., one of the marriages portrayed is between two gay men). This is a book bursting with ideas, themes, events, and emotions, and I (mostly) found it quite satisfying. I want to add a note here about the prevalence, in novels I have read recently, of the technique of skipping back and forth in time and among various characters’ stories. Although this can be interesting and enriching, it can become a bit wearying at times. (I do appreciate it when the authors at least write the date or year at the beginning of each chapter.) I find myself suddenly wanting to read a novel that tells one story straight through, chronologically. It is not that I don’t appreciate or like the other type; I just find myself needing a sort of literary palate cleanser.

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