Engagements (Sullivan)

The Engagements
J. Courtney Sullivan, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307958716

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—near Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., Smith College
Currently—Brooklyn, New York, New York

Julie Courtney Sullivan, better known as J. Courtney Sullivan, is an American novelist and former writer for the New York Times. She comes from an Irish-Catholic family where many of the women go by their middle rather than first names.

Sullivan grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in Victorian literature and received the Ellen M. Hatfield Memorial Prize for best short story, the Norma M. Leas prize for excellence in written English, and the Jeanne MacFarland Prize for excellent work in Women's Studies.

She graduated in 2003, then moved to New York and began working at Allure. Sullivan later moved to the New York Times, where she worked for over three years. Her writing has since appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, New York Observer, Men's Vogue, Elle, and Glamour.

In 2007, her first book was published, a dating guide titled Dating Up: Dump the Shlump and Find a Quality Man; she has since stated that she wrote the book for money and that "fiction was always [her] passion."

She self-identifies as a feminist, a stance that has been reflected in both her fiction and nonfiction work. In 2006, she wrote a piece for the New York Times "Modern Love" column about her experiences in the dating world, and in 2010 she co-edited a feminist essay collection titled Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Her novels often deal prominently with relationships between female characters.

Currently, Sullivan serves on the advisory board of Girls Write Now, a nonprofit organization that pairs young and professional female writers in mentoring partnerships. She has also been involved with GEMS, a New York organization dedicated to ending child sex trafficking.[6]

In 2010, Sullivan published her first novel, Commencement, which focuses on the experiences of four friends at Smith College, Sullivan's alma mater. She wrote 15 different drafts of the book before sending it to her editor, after which it underwent two or three more revisions.

Commencement received positive reviews from many major publications and became a New York Times bestseller. After the book's publication, feminist icon Gloria Steinem called Sullivan personally to offer her praise. Steinem described the novel as "generous-hearted, brave...Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning". In 2011, Oprah's Book Club included Commencement in a list of "5 Feminist Classics to (Re)read as a Mom, Wife and Writer."

Sullivan's second novel, Maine, deals with four women from three different generations of the same family spending the summer at a beachfront cottage in New England. Though Sullivan did not base the fictional Kellehers directly on her own Irish-Catholic family, she drew on her own childhood experiences while writing the novel. Maine received reviews that were slightly more mixed than those for Commencement, but that were ultimately postitive. It was named one of the top ten fiction books of 2011 by Time magazine.

The Engagements
Sullivan's third novel, The Engagements, came out in 2013 to solid reviews. The novel traces four different marriages. Ron Charles of the Washington Post called it, "a delightful marriage of cultural research and literary entertainment." (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/11/2013.)

Book Reviews
Satisfying.... At each stage of the game, the engagement ring has a different meaning.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

In Sullivan's easy, unadorned style, The Engagements is a delightful marriage of cultural research and literary entertainment—the perfect book to ruin your wedding plans. It's hard to describe The Engagements without making it sound like a lot of clunky exposition and domestic construction: five settings, dozens of characters, and all the attendant social and political contexts that need to be built for these separate plots. Don't worry: Even jumping from story to story every few pages, Sullivan handles all the details elegantly, and the situations are surprisingly distinct, adorned with the unique elements of the times and even the disparate ways people spoke.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

The author of Commencement and Maine threads her story with the glitter of diamonds.... It’s a tale that sweeps across varied emotional landscapes.
Sherryl Connelly - New York Daily News

This sprawling novel about marriage spans nearly 100 years and focuses on four couples, as well as a young single copywriter who coins the ad slogan ‘Diamonds Are Forever,’ which resonates through the decades.”
Cathleen Schine - Los Angeles Times

[C]aptivating.... [E]xamines the many facets of marriage, focusing on four couples—and on Frances Gerety, the real-life 1940s ad writer who came up with the phrase "A diamond is forever."
Laurie Hertzel - Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Engagements is a rollicking, entertaining read and a thought-provoking one too. Several of the characters’ voices have stayed in my head, and even days after putting it down I am left with a sturdy, hopeful sense of the fundamental goodwill of people and the abiding power of love.
Lindsey Mead - Huffington Post

The Engagements...opens in 1947 with ad-agency copywriter Frances Gerety.... Struggling to find a last-minute tagline for De Beers, she scribbles down ‘A Diamond Is Forever' and promptly falls asleep. For Frances, a lifelong bachelorette, it's just marketing—her boss points out that the phrase isn't even grammatically correct. But The Engagements' other characters show how much her tossed-off idea came to define diamonds as the ultimate symbol of love and commitment . . . [Sullivan is] a born storyteller. Like its mineral muse, The Engagements shines.”
Leah Greenblatt - Entertainment Weekly

Delving into the allure of ‘for better or worse,’ Sullivan’s novel starts with Frances, an unmarried copywriter who coins the ‘A Diamond Is Forever’ slogan, then follows four couples to the altar. Frank, but fun.”
Good Housekeeping

The author of Maine and Commencement returns with a sprawling tale about marriage, its meaning, its importance and whether or not a diamond really is forever.”
Ashley Ross - Marie Claire

The bestselling author of Maine and Commencement opens her third novel with the tale of Frances Gerety, the real-life ad copywriter who coined ‘A diamond is forever’ for De Beers.  It’s the perfect springboard for Sullivan’s story, which follows four couples as they navigate the shifting terrain of love and marriage.”

Inspired by the real-life story of Frances Gerety, a 1940s copywriter who penned the ‘A Diamond is Forever’ tagline for DeBeers, Sullivan riffs on the fragile state of marriage through a clever series of loosely connected vignettes. At the heart of each episode lies that sparkly symbol of romantic commitments . . . given a sharp and crystalline coherence by virtue of Sullivan’s sometimes bold, sometimes nuanced improvisation on the resonance of the diamond engagement ring. —Carol Haggas

Is a diamond really forever? So Sullivan asks in her third novel, which explores the familiar territory of people who can't quite find the old connections but keep looking for them all the same.... Sullivan's story...ingeniously connect[s] stories that span generations.... [E]legant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.
Kirkus Reviews

Book Club Discussion Questions
1. The Engagements’s epigraph refers to diamonds as “nothing more than an empty cage for our dreams—blank surfaces upon which the shifting desires of the heart could be written.” What does this tell us about the novel we’re about to discuss?

2. Feminism and the role of women is a recurring theme in The Engagements. Which character’s attitude did you relate to the most, and why?

3. Two of the novel’s major characters are anti-marriage, with story lines that are decades apart. How does time change society’s attitude toward intentionally unmarried women?

4. On page 27, Evelyn thinks, “Men made mistakes and when they asked forgiveness, women forgave. It happened every day.” Does this prove true throughout the novel, with other characters?

5. Did you know that Frances Gerety was a real person? How does that change your feelings about the character? 

6. Why do you think Frances is the only character whose story moves through time?

7. On page 100, in a section set in 1972, Evelyn thinks, “Since she and Gerald were young, what it meant to be an American had changed. There was so much emphasis on the self now—self over country, self over family, self over all else. Her son was a shining example of the consequences.” How does this play out in more contemporary sections of the novel and with other story lines?

8. While the novel is clearly about marriage, parental relationships also play a major role. Discuss and compare the parenting styles of Evelyn, James, and Kate. 

9. How does Delphine’s bond with her late father influence her romantic life?

10. In the novel, a Stradivarius violin and a diamond ring are each cherished heirlooms. Which do you think has more value? Which does the author value more?

11. What did you think about Delphine’s reaction to P.J.’s betrayal?

12. On page 175, Meg says to Frances, “Sometimes it just feels like we can’t tell what we’ve given up until it’s too late.” What other characters could have uttered that line?

13. Sullivan paints Kate as principled yet judgmental. Does Sullivan want us to like her?

14. On page 275, May says to Kate, “It’s very rare to find anyone who’s absolutely certain that she chose the right ring.” What metaphor is at work here?

15. Late in the novel, on page 344, Gerald says to Evelyn, “No one has the right to comment on the way anyone else falls in love.” He says that in 1972. How does it apply in other decades?

16. What did you think when you learned how James was connected to the other stories?

17. What point do you think Sullivan is making about the ethics of diamonds? Did reading this novel change your feelings about them?

18. Which story line did you enjoy the most? Whose story would you like to keep reading?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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