Leah Greenblatt
June 07, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Engagements

Current Status
In Season
J. Courtney Sullivan

We gave it an A-

There’s a reason Marilyn Monroe didn’t want to be best friends with rubies or lapis lazuli. Diamonds aren’t just gemstones; put one on the fourth finger of your left hand and the whole world knows your status — romantic, economic, and otherwise. But who made it that way? And why do those rarefied little lumps of compressed carbon mean so much to us?

The answer to that first question is the jumping-off point for The Engagements, the sprawling new novel — really, more a decade-spanning roundelay of five seemingly (at first) unconnected stories — from the best-selling author of Commencement and Maine. It opens in 1947 with ad-agency copywriter Frances Gerety (a real person, though the book doesn’t tell you that until the postscript). Struggling to find a last-minute tagline for De Beers, she scribbles down ”Diamonds are forever” and promptly falls asleep. For Frances, a lifelong bachelorette, it’s just marketing — her boss points out that the phrase isn’t even grammatically correct. But Engagements‘ other characters show how much her tossed-off idea came to define diamonds as the ultimate symbol of love and commitment. For Evelyn, a wealthy Boston matron circa 1972, they’re a reminder of her doomed first romance. For the perpetually broke James, an EMT in late-’80s Cambridge, Mass., they represent the things he longs to give his young family. For Parisian fortysomething Delphine, they’re the promise of a new life in post-9/11 America with a much younger man. And for Kate, a conscientious wedding objector in modern-day New York, they’re ”shiny little death pellets,” tools of African warlords and the soul-destroying bonds of matrimony.

Sullivan, a pro at working the cogs and levers of literary-beach-read machinery, sometimes leans too hard on archetypes, but she’s a born storyteller. Like its mineral muse, Engagements shines. A-

The Opening Line

“Frances poured the last bitter remains of the coffeepot into her cup. The small kitchen table was covered in paper: layouts, copies of confidential reports, lousy ideas….”

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