Diamonds, it turns out, haven’t been forever. And if you have to ask “haven’t been what forever,” then you probably have never read the nearly ubiquitous advertising slogan “A diamond is forever.” That marketing slogan, initially derided for its bad grammar, was the 1947 creation of Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter. Her slogan — along with a fictionalized version of her life story — serves as the unifying theme of “The Engagements,” J. Courtney Sullivan’s sprawling saga of a novel, all centered around the idea of love, marriage, and, yes, a particular diamond ring.
In five interconnected stories, ranging from those of the fictionalized Frances to the contemporary Kate, couples work out their sense of what marriage means in terms of commitment and family. Diamonds, we learn from Sullivan, had little role in either until DeBeers, which controlled the world’s supply of rough diamonds, sought to create one, hiring the N.W. Ayer ad agency in 1938. Under the real Gerety’s watch, the diamond engagement ring became the American standard, as she and her colleagues at Ayer sold generations of men and women on the idea that one particular gemstone symbolized eternal devotion.
Though she helped orchestrate the demand for such rings, Frances never wore one. Neither do two of the other protagonists, although they both come in contact with the book’s signature ring. James, whose story opens in 1987, cannot afford to fix up his falling-down house, never mind buy such a pricey present for his beloved wife, Sheila. And Kate, the present-day protagonist, is a “marriage conscientious objector,” who sees no need to formalize her longtime commitment to her partner even as she begrudgingly prepares to host her gay cousin’s nuptials. Evelyn, whom we meet at age 66 in 1972, is a much more traditional figure. She was given the ring, “with two large, round old European cut diamonds set in what was called a bypass style,” to launch her happy second marriage. But her sense of family, not to mention continuity, is threatened by the breakup of her son’s union. Meanwhile, Delphine, in 2003, has already left her older, unexciting husband when her story opens and has received the ring as a gift from her musician lover.
These alternating stories make for a more ambitious book than Sullivan’s two bestsellers, “Commencement” and “Maine.” Though those stories also played up the drama of different voices, “The Engagements” works hard at re-creating very different eras. Sometimes too hard. Frances, for example, seems defined by her love for martinis, as if that can stand in as shorthand for her groundbreaking success in an era when business was strongly male dominated. The obstacles she faced — from the suspicious wives of male co-workers to the disparities in pay and position — are here, as is the joy she takes in her rare allies. But the Frances in these pages seems to feel no conflicts about her place in the vanguard, or about her role in marketing a romantic ideal in which she did not participate. And James’s 1980s Boston is likewise shallow, with profanity and Cabbage Patch dolls standing in as catcphrases for time, place, and class. In addition, the book suffers from wordiness, as in the overly detailed description of the ring. Sullivan did her research for “The Engagements,” and it shows.
Still, this book has a momentum of its own, if only because each episode breaks off at a crucial time. In addition, all the protagonists are highly likable, although Frances remains a bit of an enigma. We want to see how their conflicts resolve, and how that gem moves from hand to hand. A little more cut and clarity would have made this truly sparkle.