The Engagements

J. Courtney Sullivan

Published by Virago Press 4 July 2013

400pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Coles

The Engagements is an exploration of monogamy and changing belief systems spanning more than 60 years, told through the lives of seemingly separate characters who are in fact skilfully linked through the sometimes unwitting passing of a diamond ring from person to person.

To mix the jewel metaphors, the grain of sand which ultimately came to form the pearl of this book was when J. Courtney Sullivan came across the real life figure of (Mary) Frances Gerety, an early feminist who eschewed romance and succeeded as a career girl in a man’s world. She had a talent for selling and in 1944, aged 28, she joined the Ayer Advertising Agency, witnessing amongst her colleagues and their wives the not always positive transformative power of marriage.Frances feared the trap that romance presented, that she ‘would simply disappear into a life of motherhood and isolation.’ At the same time she became a close friend of her colleague Dorothy, who went on to head up the PR Department. She learned that Dorothy had had a lover who, when he returned from WW1, had jilted her in favour of a butcher’s daughter – soFranceshad her reasons to mistrust that love would deliver lifelong happiness.

Then with a beautiful and subtle irony Frances became a copywriter for the de Beer account and was charged – in the interests of commerce – with enhancing the concept that the diamond would symbolize everlasting love. Hers was the tagline A Diamond is Forever. In terms of the story she is the realist who stands on the middle ground between the fantasy and reality of love.

The other characters’ stories are first introduced in 1972 (Evelyn), 1987 (James), 2003 (Delphine), and in 2012 Kate, and lastly Toby and Geoff. Evelyn is an old-fashioned, pure girl who lives by the heart and, above all, tradition and propriety. She has loved passionately, been widowed and then sensibly re-married to Gerald. For her, there is a proper way of doing things that does not then involve her son Teddy putting his feelings before duty and ditching and divorcing his perfect wife and children for a ‘tacky’ love in Florida.

James is a heartbreak of a man, whose life decisions are made for him by others without his realizing it until it is painfully too late. He never actually chose to marry, to have children, not to become a rock star, it just happened that way. He has a good heart, full of love, and strives to live up to all the highest principles, but his downfall continues as he puts his mother, his wife, his children and his ambulance co-worker before himself, thus ensuring his continuing downward spiral into bewildered disillusion.

Delphine has a forlorn past in Paris, raised by a lone father who played piano at the Hotel de Crillon. Resigned to romantic disappointment, she marries the older Henri, someone she respects and with whom she owns a music business. She then falls madly, passionately in love with an exciting young American violinist in one crazy week in Paris, follows her heart and moves toAmerica, only to return toFrancewhen she is betrayed and heartbroken. 

Kate is a modern girl, an idealist and a realist, who develops further the feminist beliefs held by the character of Frances– and who wants to stay true to her principles and herself. She works for Human Rights Now and lives unmarried with her partner Dan and has a child, but despite her best efforts she begins to lose sight of who she is and what she stands for by becoming a partner and mother and moving out of the city and away from her work. And it is Kate who looks beyond what diamonds have come to represent romantically and carries the conscience of knowing where diamonds originally came from and at what human price.

Toby and Geoff decide on their lavish gay wedding, commission vastly expensive identical diamond rings for each other, only for Toby to have cold feet on the morning when he realizes, as his old, familiar Catholic teachings surface, that he may very well go to Hell if he proceeds with this gay marriage.

With her two previous books, Commencement and Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan also takes a group of people who represent conflicting viewpoints about love, how things were and how they are, about life and family values – and in their interaction the ideas are distilled.  And here she has continued with what she knows works well, with consummate craft and compassion. She links the stories brilliantly and the result is totally engrossing, to the point that I began to think about Parisian Delphine in strange New York, or James losing his unlosable job while I was standing at the bus stop, as though they were people I knew.

Sometimes it seems as if the characters of J. Courtney Sullivan’s book are attempting to break out of the inherited mind patterns of her American Irish Catholic past and in so doing  have artlessly scooped up all the alternative ways of living over the last sixty years or so. In our polyglot world, cohabitation, illegitimacy, divorce are all normal, so on the one hand she is holding up a mirror to us and saying, ‘Look this is what we have created – what do we make of it now? ’ and on the other she reminds us at every step of the way – whatever the belief patterns – that once the heart is involved, we risk pain, and love is how we work out what it is to be human. Belief systems come and go, love doesn’t discriminate.

With the metaphor of the diamonds passing from person to person, sometimes on the back of disappointment, she reminds us too that the strength of love is not always synonymous with the strength of the diamonds themselves. A diamond ring, however expensive, is no insurance against heartbreak. It is the gap between the romantic expectations and the reality that J. Courtney Sullivan deals with so poignantly. She couples the reality of how we live out our broken messy romances with the fact that we never stop seeking love and connection. Our only mistake would be to see passionate love through the prism of a diamond and presume to know the future.

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