Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Engagements - J. Courtney Sullivan

I'm very pleased to be part of the blog tour for The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan, published by Virago. Below are my thoughts on the novel, as well as a Q & A with the author. 

My thoughts

The Engagements is a captivating, delightful novel that invites us into the lives of various characters and spans the years from the 1940s to the present day. In it, the author looks at the significance and history of the diamond engagement ring as a recognised token of love, devotion and commitment, at different attitudes to marriage, at different women and men and the choices they make, and the emotions which connect us all. The underlying or main thread if you like, is the story of Mary Frances Gerety, an independent unmarried female copywriter at a time (1947) when this was exceptional, and a wonder in the advertising world - working for the dominant advertising agency, she was tasked with convincing everyone that every woman who was to be married needed a diamond ring, and she brought us the famous words A Diamond is Forever. 

'The diamond would last even if the love did not. Even though youth would not.'

I found it fascinating to discover more about her through the author's portrait of her, to learn about her personal life and work. Though much of her life's work was devoted to something idealised as the height of romance and commitment, her own personal life was somewhat of a contrast to this; 'she found her job far more exciting than any man she had met...' Frances has to contend with the expectations of her day, when women married and ran the home; other women observed that 'It's not natural for a woman of a certain age to want to work in a stuffy office with men all day...'  so her career and her being single went against this, and others viewed her with suspicion, yet she seemed content. I loved her confidence, her drive, talent and self-belief. Many moments stood out as I read, especially a comment she makes with regard to trying to join the all-male golf club. She watches as other women, even those who had worked, were more or less forced to stop once married. And later in her life, she sees how women are changing and taking chances that were never there for her.

The novel then introduces us to the other strands; there is Evelyn in 1972, James in 1987, Delphine in 2003 and Kate in 2012. Evelyn has been happily married for many years but is concerned about her son's behaviour in his marriage, James is a man devoted to his wife and trying to do the right thing but beset by financial problems, Delphine had a steady marriage but has left France for America with her lover, and Kate who 'was distrustful of marriage' and is happy to live with Dan. Each relationship is different, whether a marriage, an affair, one partner richer or poorer, yet there are emotions, and difficulties, joys and sadness in common for them all.

The narrative is skillfully structured, building together a little from each of the different stories, stories that take us back and forth in time, that illustrate the choices people make in life and love, about passion, loyalty, independence, commitment. There are five stories, and five parts to the novel, and each part takes us back to each story once. The years covered by novel allow the author to illustrate the changes in marriage, in attitudes, from traditional to modern values, from divorce being almost impossible to becoming an everyday occurrence.
My copy, with so many bits I loved tagged.
I adored this novel and I absolutely didn't want it to end. I was swept up in each of the different story strands and I couldn't wait to return to each of them. I took a photo of the paperback copy I read because it just shows how many sentences or events or elements of the prose really struck me or resonated, and which I tagged to refer back to; there were so many in this book. I felt that each of the stories was strong and absorbing; they were each strong tales in their own right and brought together they made for a brilliant read. I wondered if I would be able to keep each of the stories and all the characters in my head as I read, because of the way the narrative shifted, but I found this worked well and each tale, and the primary characters within it, were distinctive and memorable.

I think readers will react differently to the stories depending on their experience and opinions; this would be a great book for discussion. It would also be a wonderful book to take on holiday and get lost in. I escaped into this story and was absorbed; I didn't want to be interrupted or distracted from this book, it was the type of read for me that it both an escape and reminded me of the great enjoyment that comes from a book that you really 'click' with, and it was also an intelligent, thought-provoking read.

I really looked forward to picking it up again every time, and I found that the characters and their lives were in my thoughts even when I wasn't reading it. I found them all interesting and fully formed, and there were things I was drawn to in each of them - Frances' drive in her work, Evelyn's love of her grandchildren and her love of books, plus her feelings about her ring, very similar to how I feel about jewelery and my ring; 'She had never been much of a jewelry person, but her ring was the exception. She loved it.'

Then, James' devotion to his family, Delphine's experience of living in another country, though I think I identified with Kate most of all, and some of the thoughts and beliefs she holds are things that I often think about so it was great to see them represented here through this character. 

The author picks up on several significant moments in the background as she narrates her characters' lives; we hear about precious belongings stolen in WWII, about Vietnam, September 11th, a recession, Iraq; this novel is sweeping in scope but always ultimately focused on the intricacies and beautiful observations about the characters themselves, their thoughts and behaviour. I liked the different locations, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Paris, they added depth to the lives being played out. There are other themes and ideas too; the beauty and joy of music, the influence of modern technology on a marriage, the struggle for equality for all who want to be with, and make a commitment to, their beloved partner whatever their sexuality.

I'm always a bit nervous about longer novels, will it be worth the investment of time as a reader? Plus, sometimes, the synopsis of a novel doesn't always totally hook you, and with this one I wasn't totally sure if it would be for me, so I was ever so pleasantly surprised when I found I genuinely loved the story; this was certainly worth my time. I realise I sound very enthusiastic but that's because I enjoyed it so much, a standout read for me and a book I'll be keeping on my shelves for years to come. In the novel, J. Courtney Sullivan writes that, when Frances was studying, 'like everybody else, she was planning to write the Great American Novel.' Well, this is certainly a very good one.


Q & A with the author, J. Courtney Sullivan

1.       Can you tell us a little bit about the character of Mary Frances Gerety?

When I started writing The Engagements, it was a story about four marriages. I felt there was a character missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on who he or she might be. I first saw Gerety’s name in a nonfiction book about the diamond industry called The Heartless Stone. The author, Tom Zoellner, included just a paragraph or two about her. He said she wrote the line “A Diamond Is Forever” in 1947 and that she herself never married. I knew right away that I had to write about her. I actually wrote “Put her in the book!!!!” in the margins.

Gerety was a pioneer, working in the male-dominated advertising world starting in the late nineteen-thirties. She wrote every De Beers ad until she retired in 1970. I was drawn to the contradictory nature of her story—utterly unromantic in her personal life, she was responsible for creating our modern attachment to the diamond engagement ring.

I wanted to be as true to who she was as I possibly could. She passed away in 1999, and other than Zoellner’s brief reference, there was nothing written about her. But I was able to interview several of her former co-workers, neighbors and friends. I visited her house, read her correspondence (and confidential company memos that she left in the garage!) I made a photo album of her pictures, which includes a four-page spread of her Great Dane, Blazer. I grew tremendously fond of Frances. She was a sharp, bold, tough woman with a great sense of humor, who often defied convention. I wrote the book with her photograph hanging over my desk. Now that I’m on to other projects, I still haven’t taken it down.

2.       Do you write every day?      

I don’t. When I’m working on fiction (as opposed to an essay or a book review) I need long stretches of time to write—usually somewhere between five and seven hours. It takes me so long to get into the world of my characters, that once I’m there I like to stay a while. Not every day allows for writing fiction. I assuage my guilt over this by reminding myself that so much of a novelist’s job happens off the page—when I’m in the thick of working on a book, even if I don’t write, I’m constantly thinking about the characters and what they are going to do next.

3.       Who are your favourite authors?

I love Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray. My favourite contemporary novel is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. My all-time favourite is Bleak House.

I adore the work of novelists like Maile Meloy, Ethan Canin, Kate Atkinson, Sigrid Nunez, Meg Wolitzer, and Jhumpa Lahiri. (I could go on and on.) Writers who closely examine the complexities of family, marriage and friendship.

4.       How long did it take you to write and research The Engagements?

It took just under two years.

The Engagements is my third novel, but it’s the first that isn’t rooted in a world that I know well. I wanted to get it right, so I did extensive research for every character and I had a tremendous amount of fun doing it. If there were no such thing as deadlines, I’d still be researching this book.

Frances Gerety’s co-workers provided insight into the business of advertising in general and N.W. Ayer (the agency where they worked) in particular. The Cambridge, Massachusetts paramedics took me on ambulance ride-alongs and answered hundreds of questions. I was lucky enough to convince the violin virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers to let me interview her multiple times, and I wrote P.J. (the virtuoso in the book) with her music playing in the background. To get the character of Delphine right, I interviewed women who had moved from Paris to New York, and I traveled to Paris, where I spent time walking the steps that Delphine would walk every day. I picked a location for her shop on a quiet street in Montmartre, and for her home on a little private road just around the corner.

Because the characters don’t intersect until late in the book, I wrote each story almost like a standalone novella, and only cut them together at the end. This allowed me to really get into the heads of all the characters, though each is very different from the next.

5.       Are you writing another novel and when can we expect it?

I’ve just started writing a new one. Not sure yet when it will be out!


A thank you from me as I found these answers fascinating, and even more so when I re-read them after finishing the novel. 


About the author

J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels CommencementMaine andThe 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 the New York Observer, 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.


Other blog reviews: The Writes of Women | A Bookish Affair |

Like to visit the other stops on the blog tour? They are listed below.


  1. Great interview and interesting plot for a novel.

    I tend to like stories that center on different people and how they relate to an object over a period of years. This one sounds very well plotted and connected with strong characters.

  2. Great interview, I haven't heard of this one but I do love when a book makes you feel like that.


  3. Great review. Wow - wonderful to be so drawn in to a book - that is what reading is all about!

  4. Ooh this does sound good and perfect with Valentine's Day just around the corner.

  5. Great review! I loved her earlier book, Maine, and this one sounds just as good. Can't wait to read it.

  6. I had heard about this book, but this is the first time I'm thinking I should read it! Thanks for a great review. :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit and leave a comment. It's great reading your comments and I really appreciate them :)