Tying the NOT: J. Courtney Sullivan's 'The Engagements' Defends Remaining Unmarried

Before Beyoncé’s “If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it,” there was another ubiquitous catch-phrase that epitomized every girl (or guy’s) dream of owning that coveted engagement band: “A Diamond Is Forever.” Using this signature line and the profound significance underlying it, J. Courtney Sullivan examines four vastly different marriages (or lack thereof) in light of the symbolic ring that that rules—I mean, unites—them all.

Prior to reading The Engagements (Knopf), I had never really given the whole idea of marriage a second thought. I just assumed that, when the time came, I would simply follow in the footsteps of all the crinoline-clad bridezillas before me and do whatever tradition dictates for me to do. But Sullivan’s sprawling novel, which depicts marriage in all its real-life glory, helped me recognize that the institution of marriage is as multi-faceted as the precious stone that sets the entire process into motion.

The novel kicks off with Frances Gerety, a young N. W. Ayer and Son copywriter in 1947, as she spontaneously scribbles down the advertising line of the century and then promptly falls asleep. This line, “A Diamond Is Forever,” comes to represent the hopes and dreams of nearly every bride-to-be, all as part of the De Beers campaign to turn diamond engagement rings into a “psychological necessity.” Glancing around at upper- and middle-class American society today, it’s pretty safe to say they’ve succeeded.

But there are two women in The Engagements who stand in stark opposition opposed to all the other excitable brides, and theirs are the most (ahem) engaging stories throughout the novel. Ironically, the young woman who coined the phrase that means so much to brides everywhere enjoys her happily-ever-after as a lifelong bachelorette. Due to her apparent disinterest in pursuing a husband in addition to her career, Frances is viewed by her peers as a sort of exotic specimen. Some of her co-workers’ wives pity her for her “incomplete” marital status, but she, ever the independent woman, pities them right back. She longs for the day when she makes enough money to move out of the apartment she shares with a roommate so that she can live on her own—which is just the way she likes it, thank you very much.

Kate, however, presents an even more radical—and even more compelling—rejection of marriage. Her descent to The Dark Side originated with a college class titled “The History of Marriage”; after that, she begins to view marriage as half business transaction, half patriarchal construct, and 100 percent outdated. Much of Kate’s story reads like a “Little Known Facts About Marriage” pamphlet, but the information is fascinating—and barely believable. Kate teaches us that until the ‘70s, a woman couldn’t get a credit card or a bank loan without written permission from her husband, and there was no such thing as marital rape. What’s more, as Kate takes care to point out to anyone and everyone, as many as 14 percent of the diamonds sold in America have directly fueled brutal wars in Africa, a fact that undoubtedly taints the image of the gemstone meant to represent pure, everlasting love. (Kate wryly calls these blood diamonds “shiny little death pellets.”) When she explains to her longtime college boyfriend that certain tax breaks only apply to couples with the husband as the higher wage-earner, her boyfriend scoffs: “Whatever. I don’t want to marry you for tax purposes, Kate. Way to suck all the romance out of it.” But marriage, according to Kate, is the very thing that has sucked the romance out of relationships to begin with.

When Kate meets Dan (ironically, at the wedding of a mutual friend), the two of them redefine the idea of a long-term relationship in an exciting, refreshing way—that is, without the icky inconveniences of capital-M marriage. Dan “liked the idea of two people choosing each other every day, rather than feeling stuck with one another,” and Kate agrees with this sentiment whole-heartedly. The beauty of Kate and Dan’s unique relationship is that it feels (to the reader, not to her judge-y, perennially grumbly family) genuine rather than self-righteous, forward-thinking without being preachy.

Okay. Maybe Kate’s a little preachy. But she kicks some serious matrimonial butt in a revealing conversation with her sister, May, in which the two debate (what else?) the process of buying a diamond engagement ring. May launches into an impassioned explanation about what the shape of a woman’s ring says about her, noting: “I have friends who really regret choosing the wrong ring, or letting themselves get pressured into going with a ring that wasn’t good enough. It’s very rare to find anyone who’s absolutely certain that she chose the right ring.” Her sister retorts: “I think if you replace the word ‘ring’ with the word ‘man’ in what you just said, then maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.”

Score one for Kate. Who needs a symbol of love when you can have the real thing?

Image: Penguin Random House