Monday, July 10, 2017

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
Published June 2013 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: bought for my Nook to read with my book group

Publisher's Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
I picked The Engagements for last month's book club selection for a couple of reasons: I'd read and really enjoyed Sullivan's Maine and I imagined a book that dealt with marriage from a number of points of view would make for a interesting discussion.

Coming at a book from five different story lines is tough to pull off and tough to read. Early on it felt like I was reading a collection of short stories. As so often happens when a book moves back and forth between story lines, the shift between stories sometimes felt abrupt and even frustrating when I had to try to get back into a different story line. Like a short story collection, some story lines here were stronger or more interesting throughout the line. The unifying theme throughout was marriage (and the role of those diamond rings that come with it) but Sullivan also touched on a lot of other themes as well - infidelity, women's role in the workplace, grief, parental relationships and expectations, financial hardship, divorce, and ethical dilemmas. There is a woman in this book that will probably speak to every woman who reads it.

By looking at women from several generations and walks of life, Sullivan is able to explore women's changing roles in society, to look at the ways society at large has changed, and also to look at the strength of women from many different angles.

Of Evelyn, who married in the 1930's and whose life's passion was teaching, Sullivan wrote:
"It was expected that she would quite her job after marriage, as most women did, and she did quit, for a while, to be with Teddy [Evelyn's son], and to open up a job for someone else during the later years of the Depression. There was real bitterness aimed at working girls at that time, especially the ones with husbands."
Through Kate, who abhors the idea of marriage, Sullivan gives us this:
"Through centuries and across cultures, women were intimidated and coerced into marriage, through horrible means - kidnapping, physical violence, even gang rape. In eighteen-century England, the doctrine of coverture dictated that a woman had no legal rights within a marriage, other than those afforded her by her husband. Early American laws replicated this idea, and did not change until the 1960's. Before then, most states had "head and master" laws, giving husbands the right to beat their wives and take full control of family decision making and finances, including the woman's own property."
An excellent reminder of why I marched in the Women's March back in January. We've come a long way, thanks to those who fought before us. It's easy to forget that, as Sullivan reminds us in Evelyn's story line, even in the 1970's there had to be cause for a divorce and the woman was often the party who suffered the most embarrassment even when it meant she had to accuse her husband of wrongdoing.

Frances Gerety was a real woman - the real person who came up with that iconic signature line for De Beers diamonds. Not long ago it was voted the best advertising slogan of the 20th century. Her life, and her storyline, are as interesting as any of the others in the book. In Sullivan's hands we see Gerety as someone who was married to her profession, never "had never wanted to marry or have children." Perhaps as a working woman who was always treated (and paid) as inferior to her male counterparts, Gerety didn't see any reason to seek that out in her personal life as well.

In a book titled The Engagements, I didn't expect to find feminism. But, as Sullivan follows the trail of a ring through the book, she also follows the trail of women finding their own voices and their own way.

No comments:

Post a Comment