The Engagements: A Case of Invented Traditions

Sometimes I surprise myself. For example: l heard an interesting author interview on NPR (J. Courtney Sullivan), actually remembered the name of the book (The Engagements) long enough to write it down when I get home and then proceeded to zip off a quick email to the author’s publicist requesting a review copy because oh yeah… I write a blog. I can do that.

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It’s the simple things in life…

Anyway, the subject of today’s post is, as usual, dating. And relationships. And breakups and true love and everything in between but for a little variety, we’re going to throw diamonds into the mix.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about diamonds. I mean no more than your average, unmarried 28-year old woman, but seeing as how diamonds are a girl’s best friend and all, it is quite possible that I’ve glanced at a few websites… ogled a few window displays… debated the merits of pear cut (gross) vs. emerald (yes!)… tried on my grandmother’s ring when no one was home…

(As a brief aside, said ring belongs to my maternal grandmother, the one who is still alive, lives three flights down from me and still married to my maternal grandfather—who is also still alive and also occasionally lives three flights down from me. I’m not sure why or when she stopped wearing her own engagement ring but I have a feeling it might have something to do with the fact that she and grandfather can’t stand one another, which is why he only occasionally lives with us.)

But I digress.

I’m not much of a jewelry person but I do like sparkly things and when my high school boyfriend joked that we could perhaps go a less traditional route (i.e. an engagement nose ring), I was appalled. Why? Well, because it’s a proven fact: if he loves you enough, he’ll spring for a proper diamond and if he doesn’t, then there’s just no point.

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It is this belief—or rather the conscious creation and cultivation of this belief—that Sullivan explodes in The Engagements. And she explodes it so beautifully with the perfect balance of historical research, humor and elegance.

When I first heard her interviewed on NPR, I assumed she was a historian because she knew so much about the history of the diamond trade and De Beers and the weird anti-monopoly laws that made it actually illegal for the mining company to advertise directly. I figured she’d written some semi-interesting (but definitely not-good-for-the-beach) non-fiction tome about the history of N. W. Ayers, the Philadelphia-based advertising agency responsible for the catchphrase “A diamond is forever,” but no, she was just that thorough in her research for the novel.

The Engagements tells the story of four different couples (who all live in different places and different time periods) and one Frances Gerety, the real-life N. W. Ayers copywriter whose late night stroke of accidental genius was (and remains) responsible for people like me making statements such as “if he loves you enough, he’ll spring for a proper diamond.”

Interestingly, she herself never married.

The book is beautifully written and somehow Sullivan manages to weave together a host of fascinating yet seemingly unconnected characters: the middle aged Parisian who fleas to New York with a younger lover (and then trashes his apartment when things go awry), the anti-wedding NGO worker and her gay cousin (who is planning an over-the-top wedding of his own, complete with the requisite obsessing over the virtues of mason jars), the elderly New England couple (who are dealing with the aftermath of their son’s divorce), the down-on-his luck EMT (who can’t afford to fix the hole in his kitchen but feels compelled, nonetheless, to buy his wife a better diamond).

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Of course their stories are not nearly as disparate as they first appear and although I won’t ruin the ending, I will say I figured it out about five minutes before Sullivan laid it all out and am very proud of myself.

The best thing about The Engagements, though, is it’s smart. It’s about diamonds, yes, but it’s also about what happens when those pesky little stones fail at their promise of forever (and how they become associated with the notion of eternity in the first place).

I’ve been a bit squeamish ever since watching Blood Diamonds with my college boyfriend. In his naiveté, he leaned over a good 20 minutes into the film to ask, “Wait, is this film set in South America?” It was all I could do keep from shouting, “No you moron! Africa! Blood diamonds come from Africa! How could you not know that???”

That was before I started studying anthropology, before I learned about things like post-colonialism and enculturation and “invented traditions.” And now—now that I’m teaching anthropology—I spend a lot of time previewing really depressing documentaries for my classes and I find myself even more perturbed.

Back when my ex-boyfriend and I started talking engagement rings, I told him it had to be conflict free. Then, when my mother suggested just getting my grandmother’s ring re-set, I was afraid that recycling the diamond from a bad marriage would somehow translate into bad juju. Since a lot of Quakers don’t do engagement rings anyway, I started thinking it might be okay to just go without—but would that be bucking tradition? Would that be back luck? And what would it say about my fiancé? What would it say about me?

It turns out that the diamond industry hinges on these sorts of insecurities. In fact, it manufactures these insecurities. Which is why, if you’d rather not think critically about them, you should probably skip The Engagements, but if you would like to think (and find yourself completely engrossed in some rather exquisite prose at the same time), read it.

And, oh yeah—I knew there was a reason I planned on posting this today!—Sullivan is giving a reading the Free Library of Philadelphia tomorrow night. 7:30pm, Central Branch. I will be there hoping some of her literary genius might rub off on me.

PS: Those of you who have diamonds, what’s your story?

13 Responses to “The Engagements: A Case of Invented Traditions”

  1. becky119

    Very interesting…for a while Future Husband talked about doing something different engagement-wise. I told him I wanted a baby grand. Turns out diamonds are less expensive than pianos (at least baby grands)! He also suggested getting a huge quartz to put in the front yard with a light displaying it. I told him to just go the traditional route.

    Having both worked in retail, normally we do not condone shopping on Black Friday, however, last year he went. I found out later he got a stellar deal because he picked out the ring on Black Friday. There are ways around spending a fortune.

    The book does sound really interesting though. Where is the central branch? Is it near the parkway?

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Yes, you should come! As for the baby grand– how very Jane Austen of you! (I’m thinking that bit at the end of Sense and Sensibility). As for the quartz… yeah, probably better to go traditional (at least a few decades or so “traditional”). I’m trying to picture it and am just cracking up!

      Reply
  2. Leah

    Interesting! I’ll have to look for this on my next trip to the book store. I never went ring shopping. My ring was my husband’s grandmother’s (advantage of being the only boy in the family). It’s incredibly meaningful to me because she was my favorite family member on my husband’s side. She passed away about 2 months before our wedding, but she was so happy to see it on my finger and know that we would be getting married. The night we got engaged she held my hand hostage for a good hour. She didn’t get the ring until about 5 years into her marriage. Her husband saved up and bought it in the diamond district in NYC (probably through a friend or relative, ah Jewish NY). I also found out she had it reset at one point to be more stylish. She always was very put together.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Wow! That is quite a story! I’m always very intrigued by how many people have interesting ring stories (and if you like them, then yes– you definitely need to read this book.) How wonderful that your husband’s grandmother was able to see it on you before she died– I think rings that are passed down are all the more special, at least if they don’t have bad juju like I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s does!

      Reply
  3. Grace @ Cultural Life

    I’m really glad you’re aware of the ethical issues which surround diamonds. I was thinking about that when I read the first few lines of your post and then I scrolled down to read more and saw that you already know about the importance of conflict free gems. 🙂

    I read The Engagements last year and enjoyed it. Sullivan is a really good writer; I enjoyed her previous book, Maine, as well.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Yeah, I want to check out Maine now too, and Commencement. And yes, I get on depressing-documentary kicks way too often (the worst is when you find them on Netflix and when you finish watching it “suggests” related titles so then you watch them too) so I’m well aware of the ethical issues… disappointing of course when you’re raised thinking you just HAVE to have a diamond and it HAS to be a big one. But worth knowing about. Most of my friends are pretty conscious about this sort of stuff but I have plenty who aren’t and I always want to them but I’m afraid to burst their bride-to-be-bubble. Then again better to burst their bubbles than the alternative! It all such nonsense.

      Reply
  4. Landlord

    I have your father’s grandmother’s stone. When we were “talking” about the ring/marriage thing, I had no idea he had this stone at his disposal. One day, while looking, he happened to casually mention it, and I was, “why are we looking to BUY a ring then?” and he said, “because I want it to be yours” or something to that affect…I told him he was crazy and that having something from another generation would be so much more meaningful, especially as we had nothing to hand down from my side of the family.

    As far as Abuelos mojo, your Abuela would be SOOO happy (if she could remember) to have you or your brother CHANGE the karmic vibes of their ring. You know how she feels about you both, and it could be a way of understanding where it came from, what their union produced (ME, your absolutely fabulous mom, and in turn two absolutely fabulous kids) and put your own new spiritual mojo into it.

    Besides, it is a nice stone and the ultimate way to recycle 🙂

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Haha, that is very true! Maybe I should work that into my online dating profile: “comes with own ring and weekend visitation rights at two waterfront properties” LOL!!!

      Reply
  5. landlord

    wait a minute…”raised thinking you just have to have a diamond and it has to be a big one?” Not in this house…yes society has drummed that into our heads…but I take exception to the “raised” part 🙂 I was actually quite happy when one time you mentioned not even wanting or liking diamonds. Their cost is ridiculous…and it isn’t really an investment, because when would you actually sell it? The only way to get one is a used one, and you and your bro are fortunate to have mine or Abuela’s. And yes, I would take it off before I died, why wait to pass it on, it isn’t like I wouldn’t know I was still married!

    Reply
  6. Maia Simon

    When I moved in with Jules a few months before the wedding, he built me a compost bin. Some men will just go out and buy a diamond, but it takes true love to build you your own compost bin.

    Reply

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