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.
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.
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).
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?