Choosing which book(s) to take with me on vacation is one of the toughest decisions I have to make while packing for a holiday. I never want to take anything to heavy knowing that there’s a good chance my book won’t have my full attention. If it’s a beach vacation I want to be able to fall into a hot nap in the sun and not worry if I’ll remember certain plot notes. I also try to stay away from overly sticky sweet chick-lit because that’s really not my style anymore. Hand to heart, I used to be very guilty of reading all sorts of junk but I’d like to say I have a bit more of a discerning eye at this point.
Alas, I bought Eleanor & Park for our Greece trip but it didn’t arrive on time and I was in a frantic search for a last minute pick for the beach. The heat was on! I really want to read Beloved and Tipping Point but neither of those felt appropriate for a boozy beach week in the Greek islands, and I didn’t want to reread something. As we were stuffing bikinis in our bags I noticed The Engagements sitting on our shelf and thought, Why the heck not? I had bought it on a whim, mostly to appease the woman in the bookshop who really loved it. Does anyone else ever buy anything just to make the salesperson feel better about their decision to own the same product? I tend to do this sometimes, even though I know it’s not healthy (or sane).
The cover alone (actually all of them, there are several) doesn’t look like me at all. But you know what they say about covers and books… It sounded light and breezy and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t make me feel stupid so I stuffed it in my bag and started reading it on the plane.
Well, that was Sunday and by Monday morning I was completely hooked and already disappointed that the book would end someday. And judging by how quickly I was plowing through it, I was sure that day would come too quickly. The Engagements follows five very different characters as they grapple with marriage, single life, jewelry and its symbolism or lack thereof, the commercialism of marriage and the intricacies of modern love. The novel’s timeline spans nearly the entire 20th century and Sullivan does a great job incorporating current events and timely attitudes to help readers appreciate and navigate the shifts in decades. Some of the characters and story lines feel a little cliché or heavy-handed, but mostly I thought the pacing and varying perspectives were fresh and engaging.
The first character we meet is Frances Gerety, a real copywriter who lived in Philadelphia and penned the famous line “A Diamond is Forever” for DeBeers in the 1940s. From there the novel raises questions about the institution of marriage and the way its used as as status marker; the diamond industry and the violent blood diamond trade; gay marriage; adultery and infidelity; and commitment in the face of what seem like crushing and insurmountable odds.
I know how I feel about marriage, but it was interesting to reflect on how much of that is a construct that I take for granted based on my particular upbringing. Moreover, I thought Sullivan’s larger insights on the institutions and invented traditions was especially on point and relevant for today’s hyper-commercialized and product-obsessed world. It’s a fun read and I’d highly recommend it for light summer reading, though I think you’ll find some of her themes could lead to very heavy and interesting discussions.
Just for fun, I thought I’d share a picture of my own engagement ring. I vacillated between not wanting a ring at all and wanting something a little different. Blue is my favorite color and blue and white is my favorite color combination. Thus, a sapphire and diamond combination was perfect for me.
p..s here’s an interview with the author. do note, however, there are spoilers!