‘The Engagements’ Offers Up J. Courtney Sullivan’s Didactic Critique Of Marriage Rites

“This was what she disliked most about Gerald’s hobby; the contests made you think you needed something that, left to your own devices, you wouldn’t even want,” Evelyn, a woman devastated by the fact that her son, Teddy, has abandoned the family that Evelyn turned out to love more than he ever did, reflects of her retired husband’s passion for company-sponsored mail-in competitions. Her meditation while preparing lunch lays out the theme of J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, a tart critique of how DeBeers’ creation of the engagement ring trend, affects a number of couples across a 75-year period. But the way it’s delivered also gets at the core problem of Sullivan’s third novel: she seems so terrified that her arguments might get lost, that she doesn’t trust her characters, or a clever plot that unfolds like a meeting between a moral horror movie and a romance, to carry them. Reading The Engagements feels a lot like a socially-conscious response to having to scroll through entire Instagram and Facebook feeds full of rings that have, in some places, supplanted pictures of actual women themselves.

One section of the novel follows a fictionalized version of Mary Frances Gerety, the ad writer who worked on the DeBeers account, and who is responsible for the ad slogan “A Diamond Is Forever.” It’s obvious that Sullivan has done an enormous amount of research into Gerety’s life, but rather than creating vibrant scenes that bring us into Gerety’s work, we’re treated to passages that read more like school reports. Early in the novel, Sullivan writes that “Frances had just finished writing the newest De Beers copy, a honeymoon series with pictures of pretty places newlyweds might go— the rocky coast of Maine! Arizona! Paris! And something generic for people without much money, which she labeled By the river. In a way, that one was the most important of them all, since they were trying to appeal to the average Joe.” Frances is someone who tells us rather than shows us how excited she is to live alone, that she dresses like a man and drinks brown liquor like one because that’s what it takes to get ahead in the advertising agencies of the 1950s and 60s, and wonders aloud about getting old alone. But she’s so burdened with the responsibility to convey historical information about DeBeers, as well as to deliver the basics of a counterpoint to Mad Men that might have made a more interesting section if Sullivan was willing to write more naturalistically about her.

The other stories in The Engagements follow a series of couples from up and down the class spectrum, from James, a Cambridge EMT who’s become obsessed with upgrading his wife’s wedding ring even as a hole develops in their ceiling, to Kate, who’s guarding the rings for her cousin’s extremely expensive wedding to his fiancee. All of these couples have been affected by Frances’ work in ways that include, but aren’t limited to these feelings about their jewelry.

James has been obsessed with the diamond he can give his wife Sheila since they became engaged during the Vietnam war, in part so if James was drafted, they’d at least have had the experience of being married. “No matter how piss poor his delivery, he knew the diamond would communicate something that words couldn’t. A woman wanted a diamond,” he reflects. “It meant you were serious, committed for life. He proposed on the seawall at Wollaston Beach, and Sheila cried out in surprise as he got down on one knee, as if the whole thing hadn’t been her idea.” Later, buying her a larger diamond becomes a way to compensate for what he feels are his failings to her as a provider and as a father to their children. “Her friends, who she had felt so superior to back then, had seen their average-looking husbands grow into men with money and power, the sort of guys who took them to the Bahamas for an anniversary, or out to dinner in town every Friday night. And what did Sheila have?” James tortures himself. “The formerly handsome teenager who had failed to live up to his potential.”

Delphine, a Parisian woman whose story is set three decades after James’, becomes deceived by a different kind of sparkle, when, several years into a happy marriage with her husband Henri, with whom she co-owns a rare instruments store, she leaves him for P.J., a talented American musician who buys a Stradivarius violin from her husband. Delphine’s close relationship with her father, and his conviction that she is extraordinarily special has left her with a longing for something spectacular. “It was absurd that she had not had a boyfriend to speak of since university, and that boyfriend was now married with two children, and living in a vineyard in Bordeaux, while she still managed to get her heart broken every year or so; a hopeless romantic with a taste for unkind men,” she reflects. “It was absurd that she was thirty-three and yet still unsure about what to do with her life. It was absurd that her father, the best and strongest man who had ever lived, was now dead and buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, where cats and American tourists regularly walked over his grave.” When P.J. comes along, bringing both his brilliant musical performance and a strong sexual connection, Delphine is entranced, and decides to abandon her more settled, but satisfying, existence with Henri. But after she moves to New York for PJ., she discovers that she’s bought herself a chunk of glass, rather than a real diamond. “His focus had been on his music for so long that other parts of him were dead from disuse, or had simply never developed,” Delphine comes to understand. “He wasn’t particularly bright or cultured, and he wasn’t sensitive.”

And bookending the vignettes about couples are Evelyn and Kate. Evelyn, who’s been lucky to fall in true and enduring love twice, is shocked by the arrival of more casual attitudes towards marriage in her own life, in the form of her son Teddy’s request to his wife for a divorce. When she gets the news, Evelyn “could feel her heart crack like a thin sheet of ice.” When Teddy comes to visit Evelyn and her husband with his new girlfriend Nicole, one of the ways Evelyn’s horror at the situation manifests is in concern over the state of her diamond engagement ring. “She was probably imagining that one day it would be hers,” Evelyn thinks when Nicole complements the piece. “The thought made Evelyn want to run outside right now and toss the ring into the pond, just to make sure that this woman would never wear it, even for a second. Evelyn thought briefly of giving it to Julie anyway, divorce or not, though no doubt she would refuse it, even if Evelyn tried to persuade her to keep it for the girls.”

Kate, by contrast, is horrified by the prospect of marriage. “The fall of her sophomore year at UVM, she took a class called ‘The History of Marriage,’ in which she learned that, historically speaking, marriage wasn’t about love at all. It was essentially a business transaction,” Kate remembers. After graduation, she goes to work for a human rights organization that works on issues including labor abuses in the diamond industry, and Kate becomes obsessed with the subject. “She found it harder than ever to let go after that meeting,” Sullivan writes. “She read everything she could on the topic. When she saw a woman wearing diamonds on the street or at the movies, she wanted to pull her aside and start reciting all the awful statistics.”

Like Frances, Kate is more a vehicle for information, though about how DeBeers gets its diamonds rather than how the company marketed them, than an actual person. But she also raises a larger issue about Sullivan’s writing, particularly with regard to feminism and activism. Kate cares desperately about an enormous number of issues, but she’s so affected by them that she’s almost paralyzed, and the purity of concern leads her to alienate, rather than to convince, her relatives who can’t possibly live up to her standards. Sullivan writes that:

The things she worried about on a daily basis included but were not limited to: Children starving in Africa. Chemicals in her daughter’s food and drinking water. Corruption in Washington, everywhere you looked. The poor, who no one even talked about anymore. Rape in the Congo, which didn’t seem to be going away, despite so much talk. Rape at elite American colleges, which wasn’t going away either. Plastic. Oil in the Gulf. Beer commercials, in which men were always portrayed as dolts who thought exclusively about football, and women as insufferable nags who only cared about shopping. The evils of the Internet. Sweatshops, and, in the same vein, where exactly everything in their life came from— their meat, their clothes, their shoes, their cell phones. The polar bears. The Kardashians. China. The poisonous effects of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the seemingly limitless pornography online. The gun-control laws that would likely never come, despite the five minutes everyone spent demanding them whenever a child or a politician got shot. The cancer various members of her family would eventually get, from smoking, microwaves, sunlight, deodorant, and all the other vices that made life that much more convenient and/ or bearable. Throughout each day, the world’s ills ran through her head, sprinkled in with thoughts about what she should make for dinner, and when she was due for a cleaning at the dentist, and whether they should have another baby sometime soon. She wondered if everyone was like this, or if most people were able to tune it all out, the way her sister seemed to. Even Dan didn’t care all that much about the parts of the world that were invisible to him. But Kate couldn’t forget.

But despite all of these feelings, Kate does relatively little to actually live out her principals. She quits her job at the human rights organization and goes to live in the country where she and her partner Dan, who have decided not to get married, and to raise their daughter with organic food, gender-neutral toys, and progressive principals. But when her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his partner Toby arrives, Kate feels angry and hopeless about her inability to resist participating in the ceremony, and by the way her daughter is drawn to a princess-y flower girl dress, nail varnish, and make-up.

Commencement, Sullivan’s superior first novel, featured a similar activist character named April, whose commitment to a radical feminist filmmaker she goes to work for after graduation leads her to take an action that’s both tremendously self-destructive and terrible for feminist activism. At the behest of her employer, who has effectively colonized her entire life, April agrees to go under cover as a sex worker, and to fake her own kidnapping to demonstrate that the media will pay more attention to missing white women than women of color. It’s a choice that draws her friends into a panic, and ends up taking attention away from real crimes against women of color who do sex work in the neighborhood where April pretends to vanish.

Sullivan was a reporter and wrote extensively on feminism before she began writing fiction full-time, and I fully understand the need to exorcise both the frustrations with tactically compromised feminist actions, and how overwhelming it can be to live consciously in a world that seems determined to throw up obstacles to living conscientiously. But there’s something worrisome about the way her characters who want to make a difference in the world end up coming across as angrier, less socially functional, and frequently more alienating than anyone else in Sullivan’s novels. Is there no joy, no self-actualization available to characters who try to create domestic arrangements with greater integrity and equality than the ones they experienced as children, no victories available to the people in Sullivan’s novels who work for a better world?

These are important questions, because for all that The Engagements suggests that the work Frances does to promote diamond engagement rings, and the financial expectations for marriage and gender dynamics that go along with those jewels, have done an enormous amount of harm, Sullivan doesn’t have much to offer in the way of alternatives, except for a gay wedding that temporarily prompts Kate to shelve her bitterness and stand up for her family. In The Engagements, diamonds are forever, because that’s what Frances Gerety, a woman who clung fiercely to her own single independence, was paid to sell us. And there may be little we can do to escape the curse she gave us, that in an odd twist, is presented as a kind of feminist triumph for Frances, if not for the rest of us.