Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

Pages: 400
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 11, 2013
Source: Personal Copy
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "From the New York Times best-selling author of Commencement and Maine comes a gorgeous, sprawling novel about marriage—about those who marry in a white heat of passion, those who marry for partnership and comfort, and those who live together, love each other, and have absolutely no intention of ruining it all with a wedding. Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years—forty years since he slipped off her first wedding ring and put his own in its place. Delphine has seen both sides of love—the ecstatic, glorious highs of seduction, and the bitter, spiteful fury that descends when it’s over. James, a paramedic who works the night shift, knows his wife’s family thinks she could have done better; while Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding—beach weddings, backyard weddings, castle weddings—and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own.  As these lives and marriages unfold in surprising ways, we meet Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter in 1947. Frances is working on the De Beers campaign and she needs a signature line, so, one night before bed, she scribbles a phrase on a scrap of paper: “A Diamond Is Forever.” And that line changes everything. A rich, layered, exhilarating novel spanning nearly a hundred years, The Engagements captures four wholly unique marriages, while tracing the story of diamonds in America, and the way—for better or for worse—these glittering stones have come to symbolize our deepest hopes for everlasting love."
This novel has many stories within a larger story and readers start off with Francis Gerety.  She's a young working girl in Philadelphia during the late 1940s.  Many women her age are married with children, but Francis wants more.  She works in an advertising agency and one fateful night she pens the famous DeBeers tagline, "A diamond is forever."  This obviously changes the world of diamond advertising forever.  Then we are introduced to Evelyn Pearsall in the 1970s. She's a retired teacher, trying to come to grips with the reality of her life. Her only son has left his family behind and started an affair without even a second of remorse. This sends Evelyn on a tailspin.  In the 1980s, there's James, an EMT, that is struggling in Boston's economy and finds himself working long hours. Then in the early 2000s, there's Delphine, a French woman, who leaves her reliable husband for a young musician. Lastly, there's present day Kate who doesn't believe in marriage and takes the moral high ground when it comes to diamonds.  All of these stories, though seem far off from each other and not related, end up working together to form a bigger picture that Sullivan reveals to readers by the end of the novel.  For readers who enjoy a story that gradually unfolds, reveals its secrets slowly, and includes a lot of delicious backstory, then pick up a copy of The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan this summer.  

Normally when an author has that many subplots and characters, I find myself overwhelmed, but that wasn't the case with 
The Engagements. I was equally interested in each character's story and I trusted that Sullivan would reveal their connection as the story progressed. 

I like how Sullivan takes us through the years; The Engagements is very much a sweeping story of family, love and relationships, but also how advertising has impacted our world, particularly when it comes to diamond engagement rings. I found that whole aspect of the story especially intriguing. I knew that "A diamond is forever" is a famous slogan, but I didn't know the history of it. I was completely blown away that the creator of the famous phrase is actually a woman from my neighborhood!  

Which leads me to Francis. She is my favorite character in The Engagements and once I realized that she is a REAL person, I was in awe.  What blew me away was the fact that she mentions local landmarks that I see in my neighborhood everyday, such as Merion Golf Course. I liked her determination, spunk and drive and I was glad that her story was the sort of framework for the other subplots.

Evelyn's backstory was especially captivating and I couldn't help but feel badly for her. She finds herself dealing with tragedy at a young age and then many years laters is devastated by her only son's behavior.  James also evoked a lot of sympathy from me. He just wants a better life for his wife and kids, but he has a lot of debt and a house that needs a ton of work. He left behind his dreams of being a musician and works as an EMT, but it isn't really the life that he wants.  Delphine, the French woman, was kind of crazy, but in a good way. She was no doubt entertaining. Her affair with the younger musician and the fact that she ran away with him to NYC was a whirlwind of a romance. What is even more jaw dropping is what happens when she realizes her young musician maybe isn't everything she was hoping for. Lastly, Kate is a modern girl and doesn't approve of the diamond industry nor the institution of marriage. She is perfectly fine living with her boyfriend and having children with him.  But she finds herself having to help plan and take part in her cousin's gay wedding, which brings up a lot of discussion points amongst her family members.  Needless to say, Sullivan included a variety of characters and many interesting situations that I enjoyed getting lost in.  

My only criticism of The Engagements was some of the lengthy tangents the author went off on. I really loved this in some regards (Francis!), but there were also some lengthy anecdotes that didn't necessarily have to do with the characters, but more with the time period (like telling us about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child…fascinating and upsetting, but not really necessary) and sometimes I found this to be superfluous

If you love a smart summertime that slowly puts the pieces of a puzzle together and when you are done you are in awe, then check out The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan. By the novel's end, I was sort of blown away in that I wanted to revisit all of the clues that Sullivan left us. Highly recommended.


  1. Normally I struggle when there are a number of subplots as well Christina, but I'm so glad that in this case all of those threads (except for a few of the superfluous ones) are handled well and kept you interested throughout. My dad and I have both worked in the advertising industry, so I think I would really enjoy that aspect of the story, and how cool about the woman from your neighborhood!

    1. If you worked in the advertising industry, you would really appreciate this book, Jenny. You should check it out. Thank you for visiting. :)

  2. Love this cover! It has such a NIGHT CIRCUS feel to it. I'm not sure the length anecdotes would be able to hold my interest, but I've skimmed through so many parts of so many books that I still think this sounds awesome. Great review, Christina!

    Hafsah @ IceyBooks

    1. I adore the cover as well. You should definitely give this one a try despite the anecdotes. It is worth it! Thanks for visiting, Hafsah!

  3. I really enjoyed this one and I'm glad you did too! How cool that the book is partially set in your neighborhood! I think Francis's story is the most interesting though I also found Evelyn's story to be compelling. Great review!

    1. Yes! I loved that aspect of the book. Anytime a book takes place where I live, I am immediately sucked in. I loved Francis' story the most, too. Thanks for visiting, Christina!


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