Book Bag: Top reads by local writers

Last modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013


By J. Courtney Sullivan

Alfred A. Knopf

Smith College graduate J. Courtney Sullivan, who turned some of her campus experiences into her well-received 2010 debut novel “Commencement,” hit an even higher mark in 2011 with “Maine,” which Time magazine named a Best Book of the Year. Now Sullivan has raised the stakes with “The Engagements,” a story of marriage, told through the perspectives of several characters, in a time line that moves from the 1920s to the present.

Sullivan sets the stage for her novel with a fictionalized account of the struggle of a real-life advertising copywriter, Frances Gerety, to create a pitch for selling De Beers diamond engagement rings to Americans. When Gerety scribbles the phrase “A Diamond is Forever” on a scrap of paper in 1947, everything changes: An American market that previously thought diamond engagement rings an expensive waste of money comes to embrace them with a fervor.

In Sullivan’s hands, diamonds become a leitmotif that connect stories of marriages and relationships that prosper, crumble or limp along. Evelyn has been married to her husband for 40 years. James, a paramedic who works the night shift, knows his wife’s family thinks she could have done better. And Kate, having attended any number of weddings — and subsequently seen some of them implode — vows never to tie the knot officially with her longtime partner, Dan.

Meanwhile, Delphine, a 40-year-old Parisian who has impulsively left her staid marriage to an older man to move in with a talented New York musician who’s just 24, discovers her exciting new beau has begun cheating on her. In the bitter, spiteful fury that replaces the ecstatic thrill of her relationship, she trashes his apartment and destroys his clothes.

“The Engagements” also follows the life of Gerety, who never married herself but stayed in the advertising business for years, and it traces the history of diamonds in America — and how those glittering stones have come to symbolize for many the hope for everlasting love. It’s a story that Kirkus Reviews calls “elegant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.”


By Robert H. Steele

Levellers Press

Amherst College graduate and businessman Robert Steele, a former U.S. congressman from Connecticut, previously lived on the edge of the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in southeastern Connecticut. That experience, as well as his observations of the development of the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in that same region, led to his writing of the novel “The Curse,” the story of the battle for a town’s soul in the midst of a gambling boom.

Steele’s novel begins in 1637 with a recreation of the bloody historical massacre of Pequots near present-day Mystic, Conn., by a combined force of English colonists and their Indian allies. As one young soldier in the group, Ethan Williams, draws his sword over a wounded Pequot warrior, the man startles him by crying in English, “You slay too many ... may the gods drive you from our land!”

Jumping ahead to 1987, Williams’ distant ancestor, Josh Williams, has begun to wonder if the Pequot’s curse has come home to him. Though he works in the insurance business, he also owns a longtime family farm in the fictional town of Sheffield, Conn., that real estate developers have their eye on. Two large casinos run by Indian tribes have already been built on the edge of the town, and now a third tribe of questionable ancestry has teamed with one of the country’s biggest casino moguls to try and build a third one.

Josh is determined to save his town and his land from this additional development. But though he’s joined by some residents, he’s up against powerful forces of greed and political influence, as well as townspeople who have a different vision for Sheffield’s future — not to mention a criminal underground that has its own vested interest.

Woven throughout the story are details about Connecticut’s colonial history and subsequent development, as well as diary entries from Ethan Williams, Josh’s ancestor. As the story moves along, Josh becomes increasingly convinced that his battle is inextricably linked to his family’s past.

That theme — of the past impacting the present — also undergirds “The Curse” in a more general sense, raising important questions about federal and state-sanctioned gambling and what that says about our society as a whole, and what casinos may bring to Massachusetts.

Robert Steele will speak Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 35 Chestnut St., Springfield, about Connecticut’s experience with casino gambling. The event, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, is free.


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