The Engagements is one of those books that jumps around in time, but instead of focusing on the secrets and passions of a single family or group of friends, it views the post-World War II era through the prism of a diamond ring, passed down through the decades not as an heirloom but by accident, coincidence and carelessness…and in one case crime. This ring unites different couples and families, serving as a symbol of both hope and disappointment, and providing a window on shifting concepts of marriage and sexuality, as well as the different challenges couples faced in the years following the war. One family faces divorce, another poverty, another couple deal with differences in age and worldview, and another tries to navigate the problems of trying to live ethically in a world dominated by capitalism and commodity fetishism.
The diamond ring sparkles hard through all of these narrative strands, even if we’re sometimes kept in suspense about when or how it will appear…or disappear. But why are diamonds synonymous with engagement, with marriage, with unity and eternity? The most interesting story of the book appears all too seldom, including the prologue, so what follows is hardly a spoiler. In 1947, Frances Gerety is one of the few female copywriters at N. W. Ayer & Son, the first advertising agency in the United States, based in Philadelphia. Tasked with inventing a slogan for the de Beers account, one late night, she comes up with the tagline “A Diamond is Forever.” This spawns a massive advertising campaign that includes some of the first product placement deals with movie studios, promotional magazine articles, and other elements that we take for granted these days, even as we take for granted the link between engagements and diamond rings. The Frances sections include fascinating details such as how the idea of the man paying two months’ salary on a ring was invented by the company, how diamonds were marketed to all levels of class and wealth–and what it was like to be one of the few female employees at a male-dominated firm during an age when single women were refused entrance to country clubs and business dinners, and married women were expected to give up their jobs, and there was something wrong with women who didn’t want a large sparkling diamond ring.
The other sections are slightly lacklustre in comparison–the other women lack Frances’s swagger, and seem driven by anxiety rather than determination. Sullivan is skilled at including a lot of vivid emotional and historical detail in a way that doesn’t seem cramped or rushed, and although the novel deals to some extent in stereotypes, particularly when it shifts to Paris for no discernible reason, it’s a thoughtful and enjoyable read.
(By the way, I posted as Funkyfacecat for the last couple of years. Doombiscuits is my twitter account handle.)