“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.