Best-selling author J. Courtney Sullivan never was that little girl who dreamed of her wedding day—and she definitely never thought about having a sparkling diamond engagement ring perched on her hand. When she told a friend she was engaged, her friend’s reply was, “Oh, I can’t wait to see the piece of string around your finger.”
“I didn’t want a wedding,” Sullivan admits during a phone call from her Brooklyn apartment, which she shares with her fiancé. “But now I’m having a very traditional wedding. There will be bridesmaids in taffeta.”
All the wedding talk is relevant for two reasons: First, her dazzling new novel, The Engagements, is an examination of marriage and the eternal siren call of diamonds. Second, Sullivan got engaged while she was writing the book, so she was researching her book and her nuptials at the same time.
While her real-life wedding will take place this summer, Sullivan depicts weddings in many different times and places in her book—showing, as she describes it, how marriage has changed and stayed the same over the past 100 years.
Paramedic James and his high-school sweetheart struggle to make ends meet and raise rambunctious boys in 1980s Boston. Parisian Delphine marries her best friend and business partner, only to leave him for a passionate affair with an American violinist. Evelyn and Gerald married in the 1920s, when both were grieving the death of Evelyn’s first husband—Gerald’s best friend.
Woven throughout the book is the real-life story of Frances Gerety, a Philadelphia copywriter who coined the phrase “A diamond is forever” in the 1940s for De Beers, the South African company that dominates diamond mining. Gerety herself never married, but was a pioneer in the male-dominated advertising industry. In addition to writing one of the most memorable slogans in history, Gerety helped market the essentially meaningless “four C’s” of diamonds—cut, color, clarity and carat weight—as the measurement that millions of brides use to make sure their gem is worthy.
“I’ve never written a real person before,” says Sullivan, who worked as a New York Times researcher before writing her first novel in 2009. “I liked [Gerety] so much. The book is done, and I still write with her picture hanging over my desk. I feel compelled to honor her. She was never married or had kids, so not a lot of people were around who knew her.”
The real-life copywriter who coined the slogan “A diamond is forever” plays a key role in Sullivan’s captivating book.
Sullivan interviewed several of Gerety’s co-workers, neighbors and friends. She spent two years trying to find the annual reports that Gerety’s advertising firm submitted to De Beers, finally locating them packed away in boxes in Gerety’s former home. (The search was well worth the effort. The excerpts Sullivan chose are funny and telling, like the one from a 1948 strategy paper: “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say, ‘I wish I had what she has.’”)
“This book has the most research of any book I’ve ever written,” Sullivan says. “I really thought about, ‘Would this character have said this particular word in 1940?’”
The character with whom Sullivan says she most closely identifies is Kate, a modern-day mom who is perfectly happy without getting married, thank you very much. Like Sullivan, Kate never dreamed about her own wedding. She struggles to be supportive when her cousin decides to marry his longtime partner and turns into a gay bridezilla obsessed with wedding-day weather reports and snagging the best photographer in town. Kate simply doesn’t get the point.
“Deep down, she hated other people’s wedding photos,” Sullivan writes. “She hated the way a bride would raise up her bouquet in victory after saying ‘I do,’ as if she had just accomplished something. She hated that even normal-sized women dieted for their weddings until they looked like bobble-head versions of themselves. She hated all the money thrown into some dark hole, when it could have been put to good use in a million other ways. Every one of her friends got so overwhelmed by the event, as if they were planning the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Now there were even blogs for the stressed-out bride, the reluctant bride, the indie bride. But no one she knew, other than her, had stepped back and asked themselves, Why be a bride at all?”
Sullivan admits to spending hours “bingeing on wedding nonsense” and surfing TheKnot.com as she planned her wedding and wrote the novel. And while she came around on taffeta, she still isn’t a fan of diamonds, some of which we now know are “blood diamonds” from war-torn countries.
“When I started writing the book, I was pretty anti-diamond,” she says. “I’ve always been sort of against them. My best friend got engaged and she wanted a diamond ring. We were in the store and they were so powerful, especially the older ones that have a story you will never know.”
It is those unknown stories—and the surprising ways in which they intertwine throughout the book—that make The Engagements an exhilarating, compulsive read. Sullivan fully inhabits her characters, whether she’s writing about a blue-collar Massachusetts emergency worker or a patrician elderly woman. Her time as a researcher is obvious on every page, as she deftly spans decades without ever hitting a false note. She hired a researcher to pull important news stories from each decade since 1900 to help infuse each story with reality, so that Evelyn’s reaction to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby seems just right, and the reference to the 1980s stock market crash frames James’ story accurately.
Astonishingly self-assured for a writer in her early 30s, Sullivan has already experienced critical and commercial success. Her debut novel, Commencement, offers an incisive portrait of four unlikely friends who bond at Smith College (the author’s alma mater) in the 1990s. Her follow-up, the family drama Maine, was also a hit with readers and critics.
Still, Sullivan says she feels no pressure to keep her name on the top of bestseller lists. For her, it’s always been about the writing.
“I’ve been writing fiction—whether it’s published or not—since I was 6 years old,” she says. “I would go up in the attic and write short stories. I know every single day how lucky I am, and it is a challenge to keep loving it as much as when it’s not your full-time job.”
Sullivan and her fiancé both work from their one-bedroom apartment—and the fact that they make that arrangement work seems to bode well for their marriage—he running an Internet advertising business while she writes. They spend “a really insane amount” of their time doting on their 2-year-old hound/golden retriever mix. She even cops to recently doing one of those at-home DNA pet tests, the results of which were slightly suspect, as it told them their 55-pound dog was half Chihuahua.
As for her own engagement ring, she doesn’t have a diamond on her finger, but she insists not too much should be read into that choice.
“I got a sapphire,” she says. “It’s not any sort of political statement—if you’re wearing a gemstone, you’re wearing a gemstone.”