THE ENGAGEMENTS

By J. Courtney Sullivan

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

383 pages, $26.95

ISBN 978-0-307-95871-6

Best-selling author Courtney Sullivan has another hit with this penetrating and sensitive exploration of marriage and relationships spanning 50 years.

Comic Henny Youngman once quipped: “The secret of a happy marriage is still a secret.” But Sullivan’s latest novel, “The Engagements,” smartly reveals that Youngman was wrong — there is no secret after all.

Sullivan’s two earlier novels both dealt carefully and colorfully with the complexities of family, friend and lover relationships, but this one is even more clever. She uses four couples to tell the story, all tied together by the artificial American obsession with diamonds as a measurement of one’s love for another.

The diamond angle is told by Frances Gerety, the female ad agency copywriter who, in 1947, created the iconic and still valid ad slogan — “A Diamond is Forever.”

Sullivan weaves advertising history through the years as that tag shaped the accepted image of commitment and devotion.

Then she introduces the four couples whose lives are decades apart, but who will be connected in tender and subtly surprising ways.

Evelyn and Gerald have been married for 40 years, the result of an unusual friendship.

James and Sheila are barely getting by, heavily in debt, with James knowing his wife married beneath her, so desperate to hang on to her that he commits an unforgivable sin.

Delphine is married to Henri but, as she explains to her lover, “I was never in love with him, not like this. But it’s not just about being in love.”

And Kate hates the commercialization and clinging legalities of marriage, vowing never to wed anybody.

Through these relationships Sullivan convincingly portrays the many facets of love and marriage, proving once again that men think women will never change and women think men will change — and they are both wrong.

BEYOND: POPHAM COLONY, THE FIRST ENGLISH SETTLEMENT IN NEW ENGLAND

By R. de Villers Seymour

Maine Authors Publishing, 2013

453 pages, $22.95

ISBN 978-1-938883-51-4

Maine historians have long puzzled over what really happened at the Popham Colony in 1607-1608. Few artifacts remain at the site of the fort and, although written reports do exist, there is still the hunger to know more.

“Beyond” is the debut historical novel by R. de Villers Seymour, cleverly using fiction to tell the fascinating story of the English colonists, local Native Americans and how the Popham Colony came to be at the mouth of the Kennebec River more than 400 years ago.

Readers must remember that this is fiction. But Seymour has done his research well, using all available sources to weave an exciting and insightful tale of Elizabethan life in England and the colonies.

The ambitions of wealthy English financiers, naive hopes and dreams of those first colonists, as well as the local culture and tribal relationships are highlighted, as is the rigid class structure of English society and the harsh, unforgiving conditions in the New World.

Richard Seymour is the chaplain for this audacious expedition to the wild coast of Maine, and the story is told through his eyes, revealing the optimism of English imperialism, the planning, equipping and staffing of the colony, and the mistrust and tense relations between the Englishmen and American Indians. Richard’s close Indian friend, Skidwarres, helps the colonists understand Indian ways. But the colony’s leaders, Sir George Popham and Admiral Raleigh Gilbert, are at times both lenient and heavy-handed, creating dangerous trouble with their own men and with the Indians.

This well-crafted novel is a realistic portrayal of colonial life with its disease, food shortages, bitter winter weather, violence, brutality and bloodshed, tense exploration, complex personal relationships and leadership challenges. Most revealing, however, is Seymour’s explanation of why the colony failed and was abandoned in 1608.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.