Book Review: The Engagements

Rating: 4 out of 5

I was intrigued by J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements after reading that it was awarded one of People Magazine's top ten books of the year, so I was excited to win a copy from a Goodreads contest. After finishing the novel, I'll say that even if I had to purchase it, it would be well worth the cost.

Whether you're recently engaged, been married for decades, or have no desire to ever head to the altar, you will enjoy this book. The Engagements is a well-researched look into the engagement ring industry and all the economic, social, and political change it incited. It appeals to people from all walks of life as it narrates the stories of five individuals throughout history, from the 1940s to today.

It begins with Frances Gerety, the real-life ad woman who coined "A Diamond is Forever" in 1947 for De Beers while working for the agency N.W. Ayer. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, she was already branded as a spinster when in fact she simply enjoyed the single life. Even though her slogan became the best advertising has ever seen, it was fascinating to peer into her struggles as a woman in a man's world.

The timeline jumps forward to a retired teacher during the 1970s named Evelyn, who is distraught by her adult son's divorce and subsequent relationship with the other woman. Then in the 1980s, we meet James, a paramedic who is consumed by guilt over failing to financially provide for his family. In 2003, a Parisian woman named Delphine leaves her husband for a much younger American violinist, only to utterly trash his apartment after catching him cheating. Finally, in 2012, Kate is a cohabitating parent who must plan for her cousin's gay wedding even though she abhors the institution of marriage.

I must warn that not all these characters are likeable; they each have their own personality flaws and instead represent a vast swath of perspectives. Readers who are more socially conservative will disapprove of Delphine's adultery and the inclusion of a homosexual couple. Even though I can relate to Kate's concern about blood diamonds, her character as a tightly wound Debbie Downer can be tiring, especially when spouting off her granola style of parenting.

That being said, I appreciated how Sullivan approaches marriage from many angles without sugarcoating any of them. I also enjoyed diving into each story within this story, because where else can you learn about engagement rings, ambulance driving, classical music, copywriting, and post-9/11 discrimination all at once?

Big thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for awarding me this copy. I highly recommend The Engagements and will be suggesting it to all my friends about to tie the knot!

Book Review: Madame Bovary

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I'm finally finished!!! Although I have to admit, I usually don't take this long to finish a book, because if I really like it, I will make time for it, school and work be damned. That means, of course, that I didn't love this book--but it was very good nonetheless.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's first novel published in 1857, is about Emma Bovary, a French woman stuck in a miserable marriage to an incompetent, middle-class doctor. Bored out of her mind with a husband she doesn't love and a daughter she never wanted, she decides to commit adultery and spend outside of her means to desperately fill her life with lust and wealth.

Much like Chopin's The Awakening, this novel polarizes readers depending on their thoughts on adultery. Since I understand how powerless women were during the 19th century, I don't blame Emma for having wandering eyes. She was brought up believing that marriage would complete her and her father pushed her to marry young. Her husband is also a cowardly twit who sucks at his profession--he lost a man's leg trying to cure his limp. If I was faced with the choice between him and Emma's passionate lovers Rodolphe and Leon, I'd make her same decision.

However, Emma is not entirely blameless. I also suffer from her grass-is-always-greener personality, but she has impossible expectations of love and happiness. In modern terms, she's a Stage Five Clinger. Her naivete made it easy for her lovers to take advantage of her, and her neediness pushed them away.

She was also convinced that if she isn't floating on clouds in post-orgasmic bliss, she's in a hell-hole of misery--when in fact, life mostly varies in the grey area in-between. Many scholars have labeled Emma as bipolar, given her extreme mood-swings, but if you read enough 19th century literature, her personality is common among female protagonists (ex. Catherine in Wuthering Heights).

Madame Bovary was not nearly as good as other novels about adultery, like The Awakening or The Age of Innocence, perhaps because Emma in part deserved her demise, and her lovers were not worthy of her attention. I was not rooting for anybody while I was reading, so I felt little sadness at the end.

I also found it interesting that even though the novel is titled Madame Bovary, it begins and ends with her husband. It's tragic that in a book about her, she is still defined by the men in her life. The reading experience was cathartic for me: I pity Emma for her lack of freedom, and I fear her circumstances happening to me. Because if anyone argues that women don't suffer from male oppression anymore, they're greatly mistaken. Feminism has come a long way, but smart, beautiful, successful women are still pressured to believe that if they don't marry and have kids, they're worthless.

That being said, I appreciated the novel's beautiful prose (even in a diluted English translation). Flaubert is obviously a master of his craft, and his legendary commitment in perfecting his writing definitely shows in his first novel. I wish I would've read this in college, because scholarly discussion is half the fun. I would still recommend this book, but only to those who appreciate literary masterpieces, even if they take forever to finish!

Favorite Quote: "Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one's lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy."