Moving from a Harvard swim-meet in 1927 to the three-martini lunches of 1940s advertising, from the back streets of 1980s Boston to an exquisite Parisian music shop in 2003, The Engagements is a novel about love, marriage, commitment and betrayal; it is as sharp, as fiery and as beautiful as the stone we have taken to represent our dreams.
Published by Virago, 2nd January in paperback.
When I was a child, my favorite books were more than just stories that I passively read and left behind. The books I loved most became a part of me—I wanted to live inside of them, to act them out again and again. I was Anne of Green Gables, getting up to all sorts of mischief with my bosom (if imaginary) friend, Diana. The other children in my neighborhood and I became the Ingalls family from Little House in the Big Woods, pretending to cure meat and make maple syrup, would-be homesteaders smack in the middle of suburbia. The Secret Garden had me envisioning my own boring backyard as a bricked-up place full of dark secrets and delphiniums. After I read Little Women, I memorized Beth’s deathbed speech and performed it whenever my parents had a dinner party.
There was one book that I read again and again, which I believe set me on the path to becoming a novelist. I was eight the first time I read it. I remember feeling an instant kinship with the title character. Harriet the Spy is about a young girl who keeps notes on everyone she knows. She’s observant and curious, and okay, really nosy. Her notebook is where she makes sense of the world around her.
Unlike with other characters I loved, I didn’t take on Harriet’s attributes. Rather, I already acted like her, and took comfort in the fact that someone out there was weird and inquisitive in precisely the same way I was. A couple years before this book found its way to me, I had developed a habit. At large family dinner parties, I would slip under the table and listen to what everyone said. Later, I would write short stories about what I had heard. I was, and still am, an unapologetic eavesdropper.
Like Harriet, I had my moments of getting in trouble for being a snoop. I once set a tape recorder to record my parents’ conversation after I’d gone to bed. They found it hidden behind the sofa, and recorded themselves talking about how they planned to give me away because really my sister was their favorite. My best friend’s mother would get so exasperated by all the personal questions I asked, that she would often snap at me, “What are you, writing a book?” (The answer was yes, but I didn’t tell her so.)
Harriet wanted to be a spy. I wanted to be a writer. But in a way, our purposes were very much the same. Harriet never just wrote down what she saw, but rather, her interpretation of it. She could be brutal. She could be funny. She was full of wonder about the way people act when they think no one is watching. If we could see her now, all grown up, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that she’s a novelist too.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Courtney’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Men’s Vogue, and the New York Observer, among others. She is a contributor to the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love and co-editor of Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.