Review: Diamonds in the rough in J. Courtney Sullivan's 'The Engagements'

As I was reading The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan, I remembered a time when I wore a $15 cubic zirconia "diamond" ring to the mall. As I ordered my coffee at Starbucks, the barista taking my debit card almost passed out when she caught a glimpse of the bauble: "Oh. My. Gosh. Look at that ring. He must really love you!"

I felt guilty. I was nowhere near engaged, so I just laughed and brushed it off.

Whether we like it or not, diamonds can define a woman's social status. The bigger the rock you have, the more glamorous you are — some would say, the more your husband loves you.

Sullivan, the bestselling author behind Commencement and Maine, makes this clear in her new novel. She pens the stories of five ordinary people whose lives, stretched over different time periods, are eventually interwoven by the importance of diamonds.

Sullivan's novel includes a bit of history. It starts in 1947 with Frances Garety, who was a copywriter for ad giant N.W. Ayer and Son (in real life, too). Frances is in charge of writing the ads for De Beers, which monopolizes most of the world's diamonds. Her assignment: Write an ad that would "strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity."

She came up with "A Diamond Is Forever," which would become her legacy and is still the signature line De Beers uses today.

Then The Engagements shifts back and forth among the lives of Frances and four other people. Evelyn is happily married to her wealthy husband but faces an internal conflict when her son leaves his wife and kids. James faces the guilt of letting his wife down all through their marriage. Delphine is a sophisticated Parisian who risks losing everything to run away to America with a much younger man. And Kate is forced to put on a smile for her cousin's wedding despite her sheer hatred for the whole institution of marriage.

On the surface, The Engagements seems like the ultimate chick lit book, but it's far from that. The novel describes relatable life problems like those of Delphine, who feels complacent in her marriage and longs for a passionate romance. And as a paramedic in the late 1980s, James struggles for money. He can barely put food on the table but wants to buy his wife a better engagement ring for Christmas. Their thoughts are dark, devastating, real.

All of the characters are compelling except for Kate, who is inherently unlikable and exhausting. She's scarred by her parents' divorce, so anything involving weddings, even other people's wedding photos, aggravates her. In 2012 Kate's cousin, a gay man, is finally legally able to get married, but the only thing she can think of is her own misery. And boy, she makes it known.

Delphine is culturally critical during her time in America. She operates with a certain elitism that she has acquired as a Parisian, which is quite funny. She can't stand how water is served with ice, how sugar is served as grains and not cubes. Her rant about Starbucks addiction hits home: "The women in yoga pants ordering their lattes in the morning without a bit of makeup on their faces, their hair up in haphazard buns, as if they had been awakened from a deep sleep and forced to go outside at gunpoint." None of that in Paris.

The Engagements is an honest interpretation of the American marriage along with the true story of how the diamond ring has become so deeply integrated into society. It's not chick lit. It's anthropology. And it may change your mind about wanting a diamond ring after all.

Sabrina Rocco can be reached at srocco@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8862.

The Engagements

By J. Courtney Sullivan

Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $26.95

Review: Diamonds in the rough in J. Courtney Sullivan's 'The Engagements' 07/20/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 7:24pm]

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