I received a copy of J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagement for my 36th birthday and in a case of excellent timing, I became engaged just a few weeks later!
Unfortunately, The Engagements was also a victim with regard to timing. I started the novel prior to heading to the UK for six weeks. I read 3/4 of the book before my trip, but didn't take it with me, because I didn't have room for a giant hardback. It's frustrating to take a long gap when reading a book, as it creates a loss of momentum. I also forgot some of the characters and plot points. Luckily the book was so enjoyable, that I managed to get back in the swing of it within a chapter, although I felt the way I read it was an injustice to the book.
Sullivan's novel is broad, with several story arcs taking place in different eras. The common theme is engagement rings. The first chapter introduces us to Mary Frances Gererty, the real-life copywriter who coined the phrase "A Diamond is Forever" for De Beers in 1947. Sullivan does a clever thing by using chapters involving Gererty as bridges to link the chapters with her fictional characters. Make sure to read the afterward regarding Gererty.
Each character arc set in a different era is a short story in it's own right. They could exist independent of the story as a whole. Sullivan writes of a married French woman who runs off to America with her lover, a paramedic who makes a bad choice when getting his wife a new ring, a family torn up over their son's divorce and a woman struggling with the concept of weddings in light of a very lavish wedding of her gay cousin. Each story stands on it's own, but Sullivan cleverly ties them together in the final chapters.
Sullivan has created characters with strong personalities. In particular, I really liked the moral dilemmas presented in the chapter about the paramedic who is struggling to make ends meet. His story is intense and gut wrenching. I also liked the story of Delphine, a woman trying to adjust to living in a new country while wracked with guilt over cheating on her husband. Delphine is a richly developed character with a strong backstory.
I finished reading The Engagements and was left feeling eager to read Sullivan's other novels. If Sullivan's other novels are as good as The Engagements, I think that she will be a strong voice in modern fiction.