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THE ENGAGEMENTS by J. Courtney Sullivan Kirkus Star


by J. Courtney Sullivan

Pub Date: June 11th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-95871-6
Publisher: Knopf

Is a diamond really forever? So Sullivan (Maine, 2011, etc.) asks in her third novel, which explores the familiar territory of people who can’t quite find the old connections but keep looking for them all the same.

Frances Gerety, a real person whom Sullivan enlists at the outset of her tale, had a daunting task way back in 1947: She had to cook up an advertising tagline for De Beers that would convince Americans to purchase diamond engagement rings, hitherto “considered just absolutely money down the drain.” Sullivan’s story takes off from there, diamonds forming a leitmotif in ingeniously connected stories that span generations. As B. Traven advised in his grand tale of gold, precious objects can cause people to do very bad things; so they do here, enacted by a principal character who, though a bit of a sad sack, does what he can to resist temptation until it overwhelms him. That character speaks to the most modern emanation of maleness: He's been laid off, his wife earning more than he when he does work, regretful because he “had failed to live up to his potential.” But then, in Sullivan’s depiction of the world, every character harbors regrets over roads not taken. Some are stronger than others, and many are devoted to things more than people: One watches Fox News and says hateful things about President Barack Obama in order to be more like her well-to-do husband, adopting his politics “along with his interest in skiing and his love of the Miami Dolphins”; another hints at wanting more children just to be more like the trendy couples on the Upper East Side, as if to say: “We can afford to raise this many children at once in the most expensive city on earth.” Does money ever buy any of them happiness? Not really, but it does score a few carats.

A modern update of The Spoils of Poynton elegant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.