When copywriter Frances Gerety invented the signature tagline “A Diamond Is Forever” in 1947—a clever advertising coup that helped De Beers sell millions of engagement rings—it not only irrevocably changed the way we view diamonds but also how we think about love, marriage, and commitment. In The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan tells Gerety’s story, but also delves into the emotional lives of four couples, testing the promise the glittering stones hold as a symbol of everlasting love. The novel brilliantly captures the lives of those characters, asking the provocative question, “Are love and marriage really forever?” In this essay exclusive to the Reading Group Center, J. Courtney Sullivan talks about how interweaving the four couples’ storylines allowed her to tell a more complex tale about what is means to find—and keep—“the one.”
When I was a kid, I used to slip under the table at family gatherings and eavesdrop. I was fascinated by the inner workings of the relationships between parent and child, sister and brother, husband and wife. I loved hearing what people said to one another when they thought no one else was listening. Later, I’d write stories that were all in some way about my family—an attempt to make sense of what I’d heard.
This is still essentially how I approach fiction writing today. I can’t get away with hiding under the table anymore, but I’m always observing strangers on the subway or in a restaurant. Memorizing the parts of them that are on display and imagining the rest.
Since even the nosiest among us rarely know what’s going on inside someone else’s marriage. In The Engagements, I wanted to write about what happens to two people behind closed doors.
There are four couples in the novel. Their stories take place in four different decades. I chose this approach so I could explore how marriage has evolved over the last century. We tend to think of marriage as a static thing, but in fact, it has changed enormously from one decade to the next. So much so that I think we sometimes forget that it was only a little over forty years ago that a black man and a white woman could not marry in this country; that a woman needed her husband’s permission to get a credit card. When I started writing the book, the laws around same-sex marriage were also beginning to change. Among other things, I wanted to delve into how societal and legal constraints have shaped the lives of individuals.
A few of the characters had been floating around in my head for some time. Years ago, at a wedding, I met a couple who had been married for decades, and came together in the first place because of a mutual loss. I based Evelyn and Gerald’s story on them. And I kept thinking about paramedics—what was it like for them to go into the homes of strangers, whose only common trait was the fact that they weren’t expecting to need an ambulance that day? And so James came into being. Delphine started as an image: A beautiful French woman trashing the apartment of a man who had wronged her. Well-behaved women (women like me, who would never dream of making a scene) tend to like Delphine best.
This cast of characters allowed me to write about marriage in all its complexity and at various stages. About why we choose the mates we do, and what happens next. James married his high school sweetheart and they’re in that frenzied period when kids are young, money is short, and there’s very little time for each other. Evelyn and Gerald are retired, long-married, but struggling with their son’s divorce. Delphine leaves a passionless marriage for a thrilling affair. And Kate resists the very idea of marriage.
Eventually, all their stories intersect. I hope readers will enjoy finding out how, and listening in as it all unfolds.