Friday, November 29, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: The Engagements

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers who meet to discuss their favorite books from the past month. For November, I've selected The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan, as my favorite read. Other contenders were Shift by Hugh Howey, The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The latter I reviewed here for our group blog, the Writing Sisterhood.


The Engagements is a multi-narrator story, covering the diamond industry in America through the latter 20th century to the present through the eyes of various diamond-owners. While the cover makes it look like fluffy chick-lit, it has higher literary aims than that. What Sullivan does best in this novel, I believe, is capture the spirit of each decade she covers. That doesn't mean you're going to like each narrator: I didn't. But the overall story works well in spite of some grating voices.

The first narrator is not fictional: Francis Gerety really was a copywriter who worked for advertising agency N.W. Ayer and Son, and it was she who came up with the famous "Diamonds Are Forever" slogan. Her story is interesting in itself, yet is not quite as interesting as the fictional characters who follow her—perhaps because Sullivan felt compelled to stick with reality when creating her. Rather than feeling I was in the viewpoint of a dynamic character, I felt a bit like I was reading a bookish biography. When I met Evelyn, a housewife in 1972, I felt immediately more engaged (erm, so to speak) in the novel. Evelyn will remind you of your favorite Republican auntie, prim and kind-hearted and unwilling to hear about that rock-and-roll music those kids are listening to nowadays. Evelyn was lucky in love twice—though the loves themselves were perhaps not quite so lucky—and she definitely has faced her own set of hardships. She does acquire a certain magnificent diamond, of course, which wends its way throughout the novel, as readers will discover.

Kate is Evelyn's mirror and her foil, which together is quite an accomplishment. As much as Evelyn reflects the genteel attitudes of wealthy yesteryear, dignified in her pearls and blind to quotidian ugliness, Kate represents the modern liberal: utterly tormented by everything. Animal welfare, chemicals, poverty, sweatshops, racism, sexism, heteronormativism ... you name it, Kate is offended by it. Kate is outrage on stilts, a rebel desperately seeking a cause. Don't know a liberal like this? You aren't hanging out in cities, you don't pal around with guilty white people. A lot of readers were turned off by Kate, because oh my god, she is so annoying. And yet. She is so very twenty-first century. I have to give major props to Sullivan for so aptly capturing this zeitgeist on two feet—even as I cringed at recognizing myself in that particularly unflattering portrayal.

Delphine is perhaps the least sympathetic of the characters, as she is a vindictive woman who leaves her own stalwart husband for sparklier things (a man and, of course, his diamond) and then gets her just deserts. She responds not with humility but with an apartment-destroying scene that Elizabeth Taylor circa 1966 might aspire to. I didn't mind Delphine as much as some readers, perhaps because I have a healthy respect for vengeance. But her story is also not the most gripping one.

My favorite narrator, by far, is James. James reflects the working-class man of the 1980s, that guy who gave up on his dreams and is just trying to keep his head above water. He wanted to be a star, now he's just trying to pay the bills and keep his family together. James sees the diamond as the ultimate way he can convince his wife he is not a failure. “Her friends, who she had felt so superior to back then, had seen their average-looking husbands grow into men with money and power, the sort of guys who took them to the Bahamas for an anniversary, or out to dinner in town every Friday night. And what did Sheila have? The formerly handsome teenager who had failed to live up to his potential.” James would have a lot to say to Ed Norton's nameless everyman from Fight Club, the guy who is utterly squashed by the relentless capitalist system that expects every male to provide more, and more, and ever more to prove he is really a man.

Sullivan does some work tying all these disparate characters together, which she probably had to do, but which felt a little bit forced. What I ended up with was an enjoyable tour through a few engaging and enraging characters, and a determination never to buy diamonds again. Long live the cubic zirconia.




What was your favorite read of November? Share your thoughts here, and be sure to hop by these other Coffeehouse reviews:
1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
3.mainewords4.Huntress
5.DeniseCCovey6.A Creative Exercise
7.Trisha @ WORD STUFF8.Katie O'Sullivan ~ Read, Write, Repeat
9.V's Reads10.Bird's Nest
11.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!12.The Random Book Review
13.Words Incorporated14.Defending the Pen
15.The Writing Sisterhood

14 comments:

  1. Hmm, me thinks you like this sort of story, Stephanie: shifting from decade to decade with a common thread between. I appreciate the fact that you enjoyed the stories despite not always liking the protagonists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps it is a pattern! I hadn't even noticed that about myself. :)

      Delete
  2. The Diamond industry is an interesting subject and background. Filled with sinister villains.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The really sinister villains don't really make an appearance in this novel; we only hear about them through Kate, and that's a little muted by the fact that she's upset about everything related to human consumption. And yet, I still felt compelled to avoid diamonds in the future, if for no other reason than reading about how manipulative Ayers/DeBeers' marketing campaigns were.

      Delete
  3. Diamonds are a funny business. But then, I've never had a significant other beg for one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lucky you! I only got one because it just seemed the thing to do. If I were in the marriage market now, I'd definitely pick some other kind of symbol for altar ceremony. I'm not sure other gemstones are a lot better, I'd have to do some research.

      Although come to think of it, it IS kind of useful to have an actual ring, come to think of it; keeps most people from sidling up to you at a bar.

      Delete
  4. Hmm...not sure if I'd like this one. You say it reads like a "bookish biography" and even your initial intro made me think that at first it was non-fiction. Nothing against good non-fiction, but the diamond industry really doesn't interest me all that much. Funny how you summed it up though -- long live cubic zirconia!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's really just the initial narrator, Frances, who reads like non-fiction, probably because she was real. The fictional narrators all read like, well, fiction. :) And the story really picks up pace with them. I did kind of skim whenever we got back to poor Frances, bless 'er.

      Delete
  5. i think I got the gist of your review. Non-fiction? Sorry, but your font is very tiny. Hard to read. I do love gem stones though. The history is fascinating. Not sure what you meant about the 'Republican auntie'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I fixed that font — I don't know what happened there! The ampersand seemed to screw everything up for some reason. I took it out and it looks OK now.

      Delete
  6. Yeah, it's funny about the cover. It doesn't seem to go well with the tone you've described here for the book at all. You have to wonder if something like that affects sales or perception of the novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, right? I can imagine a lot of Sophie Kinsella fans hoping for something similar and finding this one disappointing.

      Delete
  7. I read this book a couple of months ago and really liked it. I enjoyed the presence of the non-fictional character (Francis) woven successfully into the novel.

    I'm such a big ol' liberal that I barely cringed at Kate. She seemed quite familiar. James is perhaps the most pivotal character. His son was a pig though, and I cheered Delphine on through her epic day of revenge. Although she probably shouldn't have re-homed Charlie.

    I recommended The Engagements to a book club I just joined, and your review of it will be in my hand the night we discuss it. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad someone else read it! It's always more fun (for me) to think of a book review as a sort of virtual book club, rather than a teaser for potential readers. I meant to mention that the tie-in between two of the narrators came as a huge shock to me, even though the clues were right there under my nose. I rather enjoyed being fooled like that. Agreed about Charlie. Did you feel that a solid guy like James didn't deserve a son like the one he got? I was hoping for a happier outcome for him, though I guess it wasn't *that* bad. He was better off than he was in the 80s, but he sure didn't seem to be very content. I think the novel had a lot to say about consumerism, class, and the American confusion of "stuff" with "happiness."

      Delete