11 July 2013

Review: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan The EngagementsFew people know the name Mary Frances Gerety, but almost everyone knows her work. In 1947, desperate for an ad campaign slogan for De Beers, Gerety scribbled down four words that would eventually affect marriages around the world: A diamond is forever.

Gerety's struggle to gain professional recognition for her clever manipulation of the buying public and women's expectations for diamonds forms the backbone of J. Courtney Sullivan's third novel, The Engagements. The body of the book consists of the stories of several very different couples from the 1940s to the present and the role marriage and diamonds played (or not) in their lives.

Although I enjoyed the stories of the various relationships--some volatile, some loving; some conventional, some not--I was much more taken by Mary Frances Gerety's life. Almost every step of her career and her social standing was colored by the fact that she was a single woman. Coming into adulthood in the postwar years, she was at odds with her generation. She played golf but couldn't join a club because she didn't have a husband. She was bright, hardworking, and creative, but she hit the brick ceiling quickly. By the time that barrier had turned to glass and the advertising business became centered in Manhattan, and Gerety was virtually overlooked for promotion and opportunities.

Yet she almost single-handedly changed the way we look at diamonds. Before the war, few brides-to-be wore diamond engagement rings, and most women married with a simple gold band. The link between diamonds and love hardly existed. In fact, most of you can thank the De Beers campaign, developed at N. W. Ayer & Son in Philadelphia, for your own diamond ring.

The other stories, about the couples and their unexpected links through time and place, were well developed and entertaining. I didn't love each couple, but I don't think that was Sullivan's intention. Through their relationships, she shows us the changing nature of love and commitment over the last seventy years. And, in turn, helps us understand the interplay between advertising and cultural norms.

J. Courtney Sullivan has given us a lot to think about in The Engagements. The novel will be a hit with book clubs, who will want to discuss the power of advertising, the controversial diamond business, and the very real limitations of women in the last century. And, of course, everyone will have opinions about the ups and downs of the couples and marriages we get to know intimately.

I should probably mention that The Engagements resonated with me on a personal level as well. My family was in the jewelry business for most of the twentieth century, which likely colored my reaction to the novel, explaining why the Gerety sections are the ones that stayed with me.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 16 hr, 50 min) narrated by Kimberly Farr, who brought a good level of emotion to her performance, making it easy for me to connect to the characters. She handled the needed accents impressively and shifted seamlessly from male to female and young to old, creating an enjoyable audio experience.

Published by Random House / Knopf, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780307958716
Rating: B+ (audio edition)
Source: review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


Tea 7/11/13, 6:47 AM  

You know I always only associated "Diamonds Are Forever" with Marilyn Monroe.

Anonymous,  7/11/13, 7:19 AM  

I'm reading and enjoying this now. Great review!

Dana Tanaro Britt 7/11/13, 8:01 AM  

I think of James Bond when I hear 'diamonds are forever'...perhaps because that Husband o' Mine is a James Bond fan and just recently added that song to a playlist--yes, perhaps.

Hmm I might have to add this book to my TBR on Goodreads. Thanks!

rhapsodyinbooks 7/11/13, 8:17 AM  

I can't think about diamonds without thinking about all those kids working in the mines with their arms hacked off!

Andi 7/11/13, 9:27 AM  

I'm really looking forward to snapping this one up sometime in the near future.

bermudaonion 7/11/13, 10:06 AM  

My mom's told me that engagement rings are a fairly modern concept. I didn't love Maine, so I'll have to think about this book.

Anonymous,  7/11/13, 10:32 AM  

Ohmigod. What a great idea for a book. (Wish I'd thought of it first!) Great review, and a fascinating story--think I'll put this on my TBR list.

JoAnn 7/11/13, 11:13 AM  

I loved Maine and had planned to read this eventually. Your review makes me likely to read, or listen, much sooner - thanks!

Tea 7/11/13, 11:22 AM  

...And I've been dying to read Maine. Maybe I won't care for it either.

Charlie (The Worm Hole) 7/11/13, 2:32 PM  

I read about the way diamonds became the norm a while ago and it was fascinating, but if left out Gerety. How interesting! I've been wanting to read Maine for some time and the story here makes me want to make that sooner, both so I can read The Engagements and because her writing sounds even better than I'd thought.

Susan 7/11/13, 3:46 PM  

I've been hearing about this book on various book sites as a book for the summer, and yours is the first thorough review of it. It sounds interesting, though not what I expected. I was as interested to hear your family was involved in jewelry too! I will get this out from the library, I think. I'm interested in the Gerety section too. Thanks for a good review, Beth.

Shannon @ River City Reading 7/11/13, 6:33 PM  

I feel like I blew this one off as not my style a little too easily, now I'm starting to think I would really enjoy it. Time to add another to Mt. TBR!

Belle Wong 7/11/13, 10:49 PM  

This sounds like an interesting read. I hadn't known that it was a woman who'd come up with the slogan "a diamond is forever". It's such a shame she hit that brick ceiling.

(Diane) bookchickdi 7/12/13, 9:43 AM  

I am looking forward to reading this one, just for the reason you stated. I enjoy reading about women's professional lives back in the day. And how interesting that your family was in the jewelry business!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 7/14/13, 8:36 PM  

Glad to hear that the audio was good. This is on my list as I liked Maine last summer.

Joanna Hennon 7/16/13, 6:54 AM  

I love when a book includes historical tidbits, i think I'd like this one. I never thought about the slogan behind diamonds, but of course advertising must have had a huge effect on the way we look at diamonds.

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