Review: The Engagements, By J Courtney Sullivan

Narratives with the ring of truth

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The interlinked short story is arguably the literary form of the 21st century. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour have turned micro-narratives criss-crossing inventively into critical and commercial gold.

The diverse and disparate characters of J Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements meet only fleetingly, but their lives are gathered together by echoing themes (love, loss, money), motifs (car crashes, weddings, war) and a diamond ring that is first presented on bended knee, then later stolen, inherited, mislaid and finally presented again on a quite different bended knee.

At the centre is Frances Gerety, a real-life blueprint perhaps for Mad Men's pioneering Peggy Olson. Gerety was the copywriter who, in 1947, coined the phrase "a diamond is forever" for De Beers. Pairing jewellery and romance helped the company cash in on the marriage boom that followed the Second World War. In The Engagements, Gerety's chapters have a lot of socio-historical explaining to do. But Gerety, an undervalued, unmarried woman in an industry dominated by married men, emerges heroically from the lecture.

This central stream splits into four other narrative tributaries. Each segment illustrates the central irony of Gerety's slogan: between the diamond as rock-hard symbol of enduring love (or possibly just endurance) and marriage's increasing tendency towards impermanence.

In 1972, Evelyn is a wealthy retired teacher whose wayward son Teddy has shamed her by abandoning his wife and children for true love with an unattractive alternative. Infidelity also defines Delphine's story. She swaps Parisian contentment with older, dependable Henri for passion with P J, a hunky, young American violinist. The final section focuses on Jimmy McKeen, a middle-aged paramedic whose dreams of musical stardom have long since been replaced by punishing work, money troubles and family duty.

Sullivan plays her cards with considerable assurance, running together ideas, plots and, eventually, the characters themselves with skill and care. The form suggests the uniformity of life in modern America, one held in uneasy alliance by patriotism, a pervasive media and rampant consumer- ism. And yet, the gaps between Sullivan's stories remember how fragile that consensus so often is.

If I had a reservation about The Engagements, it is that, at times, Sullivan feels careful to the point of playing it safe. Her prose is crisply functional without ever quite letting its hair down as it did in her previous novel, Maine.

These are minor gripes. The Engagements convinces and, in the final section, packs a powerful emotional punch that keeps sentiment- ality at arm's reach. Here is an absorbing summer read that will move you and make you think. Newlyweds might want to wait, at least until they're back off honeymoon.