Book Review: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
Release Date: 2nd January 2014
Publisher: Virago
Buy: Paperback  Kindle
Rating:
5 star

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1947: Mary Frances Gerety, a young copywriter in an eminent advertising agency, has to convince the world of two things – that marriage means a diamond ring on every woman’s finger, and that she is as good at her job as any man. And then, in one moment of brilliant inspiration, Mary Frances writes down four words which will achieve both her aims . . .

Moving from a Harvard swim-meet in 1927 to the three-martini lunches of 1940s advertising, from the back streets of 1980s Boston to an exquisite Parisian music shop in 2003, The Engagements is a novel about love, marriage, commitment and betrayal; it is as sharp, as fiery and as beautiful as the stone we have taken to represent our dreams.

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The Engagements is a story set over a time span starting in the late forties all the way up to present day. Firstly we meet Mary Frances Gerety , a young woman working as a copywriter for an advertising agency who is very much a woman working in a ‘man’s world’. It is Mary (or Frances as she’s known in the story) who dreams up the famous advertising slogan ‘A Diamond Is Forever’. She works tirelessly to change the world’s opinion on diamonds and through the company Ayer convinces every woman that a diamond is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Despite all this she never actually marries herself and sees herself more as a career woman.
There’s also, Evelyn who we first meet in the 1970’s. Happily married to her husband Gerald, she is one of the lucky ones who does have an extravagant ring on her finger, however she soon learns that money can’t buy you happiness…especially where her son is concerned.
There’s also James whose story starts in the late eighties. He is married to his long suffering wife Shelia. However with two children to look after and bills and debts to pay James is struggling with his life working as an ambulance driver. He longs to treat Shelia and buy her the fancy diamond rings that she deserves but there doesn’t seem much chance of that happening any time soon.
Then there’s Delphine, who has uprooted from her home and husband in France to move to America with her lover. Things start off well, but Delphine knows that for people in her situation these stories never seem to end happily…
Then finally there’s Kate whose story takes place in 2012. Her beliefs and patience are pushed to the limit when her cousin decides to get married and her family descend on her for the Wedding. However, happily living with her partner and daughter and with no intentions of saying ‘I Do’ Kate has strong beliefs concerning the marriage industry and very different ideas from her mother and sister.
I was really looking forward to starting The Engagements. When I read that the story started in 1947 and spanned over 60 years I was really intrigued to see how it would play out, especially when I learnt that the novel tells the stories of five different characters. I did wonder if it would be difficult keeping track with so many different main characters and adjusting to the different time period of each of their stories, however I needn’t have worried – The Engagements met all of my expectations and more!
I loved the way that the story was set and I genuinely found each set of characters and each era enjoyable to read. I liked all of the characters equally and was interested in the outcome of all of their situations, not just a select few. They all had very different relationships and stories, yet they were all set around the same theme and this story really got me thinking about just how insignificant an engagement ring can be. However many carats you have doesn’t count for much when all is said and done…
I found The Engagements to be highly addictive. At 500 plus pages it’s not a quick read but I found the length perfect to illustrate the characters situations. It’s one of those books that are difficult to put down and it always felt fresh and interesting throughout, mainly due to the regular change of character and era. I loved Sullivan’s writing and felt that she made all of the characters realistic and fascinating at the same time. I was desperate to know more about their stories and to find out how things would work out for them. I also found it fascinating to read about the advertising industry back in the forties and fifties and I feel as though I actually learnt quite a bit from this novel (perhaps without realising because I was enjoying it so much…) It’s a bit of an eye opener to learn about how different things were back then and even how much emphasis was put on marriage. It’s amazing and such a contrast to how things are today. I really admire the amount of research that Sullivan must have put into this book and she manages to make each time era very realistic.
When I first started reading I knew that there must be some way in which the characters were all tied together and I struggled to work it out, however when you do realise the link it all clicks into place and makes perfect sense! The characters and their stories are all brought together in a really clever way.

I found The Engagements to be a fascinating, up-lifting novel that you can’t help but get absorbed in. This is the first novel I’ve read by Sullivan and I don’t intend it to be the last. I’m really looking forward to her future work after reading The Engagements.
You know you’ve got a good novel when you really look forward to reading it at every available opportunity and feel a bit lost and disappointed when it’s finished! I would class The Engagements as one of my favourite books of the year, it’s a thought provoking, action packed, insightful read.

 

It’s going to have to be a sparkly shoe review for The Engagements… Sparkly Shoe Find out more on my Favourites page.

*Received from publisher for review, thank you.

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J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000, and it will be translated into 17 languages. Courtney’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among many others. She is a co-editor, with Courtney Martin, of the essay anthology Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

You can follow J. Courtney Sullivan on Twitter @jcourtsull

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