“Tra la! It's May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev'ryone goes
I can’t help singing this, in my best Julie Andrews, when it’s this time of the year. Especially because I do tend to go off course in the spring. I am distracted by the flowers and the scents and the sheer bliss of walking around without a sweater. Last week, I went blissfully astray, for hours and hours, when I lost myself in a new book — The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan.
I got this book as an advance copy. I did not expect great things. I did not expect not-great things, either. I have no expectations of any advanced copy anymore, for after reading advance copies for years, I have given up having them. This is partially because each advance copy is accompanied by a letter from the publisher, giving a small synopsis of the book and touting its likely success. I have learned that every publisher treats each novel it releases as the next Hunger Games and writes about it accordingly. As I like to make my own judgments about the material I read, my common practice has become to throw away — without reading — any letter that accompanies the book.
I didn’t use to throw them away, but the nausea overwhelmed me. I loved reading them at first, because I thought they were true. I am gullible.
“Batter Up! introduces Keith ‘Batter’ Boggs, a truly unique amateur sleuth. A former professional baseball player who has decided to open a cupcakery in suburban Washington DC after coming out as gay, Batter is starting to break even. His cupcake shop, Cake Hit, becomes the favorite rendezvous of Senator Baxter Johnson and his mistress Lala Gomez (reality star and former Miss District of Columbia) and her favorite cupcake becomes the dessert of the moment. But sweet success turns into disaster when Lala is discovered dead in Nationals Park, wearing Bogg’s old jersey. When the police focus on Batter as a suspect, he is forced to investigate the crime with help from his pal Lefty, a former umpire who sees things clearer than most."
These letters actually made me salivate at the thought of reading the books described, but I got jaded after reading too many of them. But I am still influenced by the book covers. I am sick of the current crop of book covers, where publishing houses seem to have lost any pretense at trying to design a cover unique to each book, and instead have designs that scream out the genre of the book. Right now, the literary fiction cover designs seems to be the book title in big letters, in some sort of offbeat font, with small designs behind it or around it (see A Constellation of Vital Phenomena or State of Wonder). Anything in the werewolf/vampire/zombie camp has its creature on the front, usually with a teen-aged girl. Fantasies feature someone in a cape or armor and thrillers and mysteries can be spotted at forty paces, since their authors’ names are usually in forty-point fonts above the title, which is set against a backdrop of a city, or in the case o Vince Flynn, a man in a suit. Many advance copies arrive with either pale blue, yellow, or plain white covers with the title across the front and no cover art at all. Even then, you can tell which of these books is a romance, because they have the title in a girly font, while a serious work of fiction has a plain font.
I assumed that The Engagements was chick-lit, simply because the cover looked, well, chick-litty. A navy blue background with a stylized feminine hand, wearing the obligatory red nail polish, holding up a diamond ring. But I needed something to read, so I ignored the cover and opened it to the first page.
I could tell by the end of the first chapter, set in 1947, where single copy writer Frances Gerety is frantically trying to come up with a tag line for a series of DeBeers ads, that I was hooked. I happily turned the page, ready for more of Frances’ creative struggles, but the next chapter was not about Frances. Or set in 1947. It was 1972, in Belmont, Massachusetts, and we were seeing things from Evelyn’s point of view — a happily-married woman who is fretting about her retired husband’s penchant for entering sweepstakes and her grown son’s failing marriage.
The Engagements tells a long, sprawling story through a series of seemingly unconnected chapters about five characters, set in different times and places. Besides Evelyn and Frances, there is Kate, a woman preparing for the Bridezilla wedding of her two male gay friends; Delphine, a Frenchwoman who is living in New York City due to romantic complications; and James, an EMT in Quincy, Massachusetts who is struggling to stay financially above water. All of the characters are interesting in themselves, and their stories intertwine in ways that seem possible.
I love novels told as interconnected stories, but the plausibility of the connection is of paramount importance. I hate it when this type of book hangs on a coincidence that is just too unbelievable. The Engagements connections seem realistic to me. Possible. Probale, even.
As I read The Engagements, I kept getting an image in my head: a pot holder loom. Remember those? We used them in Girl Scouts and summer camp to make gifts for our moms. You place loops vertically across the loom, and once you’ve got all the verticals, you start weaving horizontally to create a grid. The more colors you use, the more complicated the pattern becomes. And as you add loops, the pot holder becomes more and more dense. What’s tricky is taking the pot holder off the loom — you have to pick up each loop and insert it into the next until you can take the potholder off/ It is not until you pull the final loop off the loom that you actually have something that you can use to pick up a hot pan.
And that’s what The Engagements is like. When you get to the final installment, everything comes together —nicely, believably even — but you have to wait until that final loop is pulled to have a story that works. And it does.
The writing is crisp and clean and deliciously readable. And I loved the information within the book about diamonds, not because I am a diamond fan, but because I am a fan of ethical quandaries. There are a lot of ethical conundrums about these gorgeous stones: almost as many as there are about the engagements they symbolize.
This is one of the few books I’ve read this year that I can recommend to everyone I know. I can recommend this book to my mother as comfortably as I can to any of my friends. It’s a satisfying read: a nice, ricj meal of words.
After reading The Engagements, I thought “This author has a career ahead of her.” Then I looked her up online. Apparently she has one behind her as well: I discovered that she has already been on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m glad. And now I can go and read her other books.
Read The Engagements. Get it for your book group. Everyone will be happy you did.