by J. Courtney Sullivan
I was recently given a copy of The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan which was published in 2013. I was aware of her novels but had yet to read any of them.
Tucked in between its pages the previous reader had left a clipping from The Boston Globe featuring an interview with the author about the book. I purposely put it aside not wanting it to influence my reading of it in any way.
At the center of this fictional story the main character is based on the real life of Frances Gerety, a copywriter for a Philadelphia adverting agency beginning in the 1940’s who was assigned to the agency’s biggest account, DeBeers Jewelers. As the book travels over the decades, the author explores the lives of four people, some of whom experienced engagements, some not, always returning to Frances and the factual history of the DeBeers marketing strategy to promote diamond rings which began with the engagement ring.
I’m not a fan of historical fiction and the tool of taking real people and using them as characters. I find it a gimmick – I’m always wondering what was true, what was created by the author and how unfair it is the person who is no longer alive to tell their story. However after finishing the book, I was grateful to learn that Ms. Sullivan did a great deal of research, and more importantly, had had lengthy interviews with former colleagues and friends of Frances; I felt confident that she, a women ahead of her time was presented accurately and would appreciate her story being told.
Ms. Sullivan is often lauded for her developed and drawn out characters. At times I found the characters too developed, leaving little to the reader’s imagination; some of the characterizations bordered on being one dimensional and stereotypical. For me the most interesting character was not the fictional ones but was Frances.
After a handful of chapters and not feeling overly enamored with the story I pulled out the interview and discovered that there would eventually be a connection linking the individual characters. Armed with this nugget, the amateur sleuth in me resumed reading with a new curiosity to figure it out. I’m glad I finished the book. I’m grateful to Ms. Sullivan for sharing the life of Frances Gerety, a woman whose work in a once male dominated industry contributed immeasurably to the success of DeBeers. We need more stories which reveal and acknowledged the ground breaking contributions of such women. ~ Nina Murphy