The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements begins in 1947 with a fictionalised account of Frances Gerety, a young female copywriter for the advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son, working late. You’ve probably never heard of Gerety but you will know the line that she coined for the diamond company De Beers – ‘A diamond is forever’.

The irony of this comes in Gerety’s recognition that she doesn’t want the same things as other women:

Frances ran a finger over one of her honeymoon ads. Other women never seemed to think about what came next. they were so eager to be paired up, as if marriage was known to be full of splendor. Frances was the opposite: she could never stop thinking about it. She might go to dinner or out dancing with someone new, and have a fine time. But when she got home and climbed into bed afterward, her heart would race with fear. If she went out with him again, then they might go after that. Eventually, she would have to take him home to be evaluated by her parents, and vice versa. Then he would propose. And she, like all the other working girls who had married before her, would simply disappear into a life of motherhood and isolation.

Gerety’s story frames the book, looking at her life from 1947 to 1988. Four other characters are presented to us through a single day in their lives.

In 1972, Evelyn Pearsall is awaiting the arrival of her only son Teddy. She is furious with him for leaving his wife and two young daughters. While she waits for him, we hear her own story about how she met her husband/Teddy’s father and what happened to her first husband. Evelyn also once wanted something different to other women:

It was expected that she would quit her job after marriage, as most women did, and she did quit for a while, to be with Teddy, and to open up a job for someone else during the later years of the Depression. There was real bitterness aimed at working girls at that time, especially the ones with husbands. Most schools in the country wouldn’t hire a woman anymore.

But she longed to be back in the classroom, and after Gerald returned from the war she started teaching again for the first time in more than a decade. It was uncommon for a man of her husband’s station to have a working wife. But Gerald understood her better than anyone, and he knew what teaching meant to her.

Christmas Eve, 1987 and James McKeen is out on his third twenty-four hour shift this week. After being fired from the fire department, he’s become a medical responder, travelling around the city attending the sites of calls from people in need of various types of medical attention. At home, his wife Sheila and their two boys sit in a house that is falling down around them. A month earlier, Sheila was mugged. Her wedding and engagement rings were both taken.

In 2003, Delphine Moreau is trashing her former lover’s New York apartment. Having left her husband and Paris for him, it’s the least she can do.

While in 2012, Kate, partner of Dan, mother of three-year-old Ava, former Human Rights Now officer, is preparing for the wedding of her cousin Jeff to his boyfriend Toby. The problem is, Kate hates the excess of traditional weddings, the giving of diamond rings with stones that have more than likely come from a war-torn area, and well, marriage itself:

It was about the fact that marriage was outdated and exclusionary, and worked only 50 percent of the time anyway…But the fact that she wouldn’t get married made her suspect in her mother’s eyes.

The men she dated in her twenties seemed similarly suspicious. When she told them that she did not want to get married, she was usually met with disbelief or some variation on the word feminazi.

It’s fascinating to see how little has changed for women in the 60 odd years from Frances Gerety to Kate.

I loved The Engagements. I read it in two days and it had me completely absorbed. What’s so good about it is this: it’s unashamedly feminist but it doesn’t just deal in domestic situations. Through the characters Sullivan’s created, she looks at the power of advertising, AIDS, class, race, culture, blood diamonds, parenting and homosexuality. It’s also very well structured, moving from story to story, leaving a thread dangling and you racing on to discover what’s happening to each character. The Engagements deserves to stand alongside The Interestings as an example of a perceptive observation of our society.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.