“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” So begins one of the alt-pop radio singles of the summer, “Royals,” sung in a velvety alto by Lorde, a sixteen-year-old New Zealander. A lighthearted and clever commentary on living the have-not life in a world where gratuitous displays of wealth are common as air, the song resonates perhaps most deeply when it’s followed by a jeweler’s ad: the right price; the best color, cut, and clarity; everything, the authoritative male voice-over reminds us, that she’s ever wanted. Diamonds. Against this backdrop, consider J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, which addresses one of the most fetishized rituals in American culture. From its cover design to its title to its wedding-season pub date, the book seems shrewdly engineered to snag readers headed for sunny locales. And rightly so: one sinks into The Engagements with the ease of the very best beach reads.
But the book’s silky surface belies the serious territory it mines. Rather than a crisis-driven romp through the waiting game of proposals, registries, and cake tastings, The Engagements takes on the institution of marriage and everything in our culture and economy that rides upon it—or props it up. Through the prism of four couples’ stories, Sullivan ambitiously explores the ways in which marriage itself has responded over the past half-century to stretches and rips in the social fabric, to changes in social mores, even to technological advances. The result is a pleasurable but ultimately ambivalent, even sobering look at conjugal partnership as we know it. Doubts and regrets simmer, families grow divided and embittered, an extravagant diamond engagement ring is lost and found. And through it all the wedding-industrial complex metastasizes into the behemoth driver of social expectations that it is today.
The novel begins in 1947 with Frances Gerarty, a character based on a real copywriter of that name who earned her chops in advertising well before the Mad Men era. Tasked with selling the concept of the diamond engagement ring as a necessity at a time when such a purchase was largely considered “absolutely money down the drain,” Gerarty scribbles a line that becomes one of the most famous mottos in advertising: A Diamond is Forever. But Gerarty herself is wedded only, and happily, to her work; she’s a lifelong “bachelor girl,” one with “no desire to play the role of wifey-poo.”
In the next chapter, we meet Evelyn Pearsall, a retired schoolteacher who is devastated when her son leaves his wife and children for another woman. It is 1972, and the world her son is inheriting seems a betrayal of the values that ground Evelyn’s own marriage, peaceable and long-lived though born more of convenience than passion. “Since she and Gerald were young, what it meant to be an American had changed,” Evelyn reflects. “There was so much emphasis on the self now—self over country, self over family, self over all else. Her son was a shining example of the consequences.” She also finds the growing obsession with diamonds vulgar: when she was young, she reflects, “no one waited years to make a major life change, in want of a piece of jewelry.”
Through each of her narratives, Sullivan reveals Americans’ collective desire for the diamond engagement ring as something manufactured entirely by an industry. In the 1950s, Gerarty observes the diamond ring become de rigueur for engagements, and she feels proud: “They didn’t know why they wanted diamonds, but they had wanted them all the same. There was no tradition, not really. But she had convinced them otherwise.” But several decades later, another character, Kate, sees the persuasive churn of that industry for what it is. As a young woman who struggles “with how to do good in a corrupt world, where just by eating dinner or turning on a laptop each of us was complicit in someone else’s suffering,” she’s also painfully aware of the human-rights abuses of diamond mining and wants no part in those atrocities.
Like Gerarty, Kate has eschewed marriage to her partner, Dan, but for different reasons. Her decision is brought up for critique when her dear friend and cousin, Jeffrey, prepares to marry his boyfriend, Toby. On one hand she supports their choice; on the other, she bristles against pressure from her mother and sister, who are troubled by Kate’s refusal to wed. “The outside pressure to be married was intense,” Sullivan writes. “People wanted you to validate their choices by doing the same thing they had done. [Kate] was blessed—or cursed, depending on how you looked at it—to be the kind of person who really didn’t care what other people thought, as long as she believed it was right.”
Sullivan never uses her characters to prosecute an agenda, but the novel shows its teeth in Kate’s fierce questioning of her culture’s ideals concerning marriage—and more broadly, the ethics of consumerism. A heroine for the marriage-averse, Kate is a lens through which Sullivan does her most interesting examination of culturally sanctioned ideals. She rejects the values embraced by Meg, for whom an upcoming tenth wedding anniversary represents an opportunity to upgrade the size of the rock in her engagement ring. And at a hair salon, Kate listens with interest as one of the stylists expounds on “starter marriages” and the way technology threatens to undermine the institution: “Everyone has a cell phone, an email account. It’s easier than ever to cheat.”
Other couples in The Engagements explore the role of compromise in a “happy, healthy” marriage. James, for example, is an emergency medical technician and father of two. A “formerly handsome teenager who failed to live up to his potential,” James loves his wife, Sheila, but is crushed by guilt over the difficulty of making ends meet and his sense that he’s failing himself and his family. For James, marriage and family clearly leave him burdened. But that bond also affords him no small amount of solace from a workaday existence that’s almost unimaginably stressful.
For Delphine, marriage to an older man also offers a solace, in her case from a string of failed love affairs. “She knew he wasn’t going to sweep her off her feet, but that never led anywhere good anyway,” Sullivan writes. “She and Henri were friends, or, more precisely, family. There was such ease between them, but even that disturbed her. When he touched her arm or took her hand, she felt numb.” Delphine’s journey is a study in the frequency and ease with which a battle between self-interest and commitment results in betrayal, but it is also a show of the remarkable strength of love and forgiveness.
These characters are all richly drawn, each out of step with the world in his or her own way. In their worst moments, they are often all the more endearing as Sullivan shows that the just action isn’t always a matter of choosing among distant poles of right and wrong. And in beautiful counterpoint to the wedding industry’s equation between the worth of a relationship and the value of a piece of jewelry, Sullivan’s book shows us just how little weight, in the end, glittery baubles really carry in a marriage, garnering their only value in the mix of our wants, needs, and actions.
The Engagements leaves the reader with some important, ultimately troubling, questions: do we get married—and do we do wed the way we do—because we truly want to, or because we have been brainwashed to believe it’s what we want? Is matrimony an institution worth buying into? Does it have much at all to do with love—or are we blind to its true status as an outmoded economic arrangement? The novel provides lots of material from which to form a position, but never is it a stern, unequivocal argument itself. It is, like life, like any marriage, much more complicated than that.
J. Courtney Sullivan will discuss The Engagements at Parnassus Books in Nashville on July 15 at 6:30 p.m.