Review: The Promise

Saturday, May 17, 2014

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1900. Young pianist Catherine Wainwright flees the fashionable town of Dayton, Ohio in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation she agrees to marry him, but when Catherine travels to Oscar's farm on Galveston Island, Texas—a thousand miles from home—she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her. The island is remote, the weather sweltering, and Oscar's little boy Andre is grieving hard for his lost mother. And though Oscar tries to please his new wife, the secrets of the past sit uncomfortably between them. Meanwhile for Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, Catherine’s sudden arrival has come as a great shock. For not only did she promise Oscar’s first wife that she would be the one to take care of little Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar which she is struggling to suppress. And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before. (from Amazon)

From the first few sentences of The Promise I knew I was in the hands of a good writer - not someone who is love with the sound of their own voice - but who knows their characters and worlds inside and out and can immerse the reader in another place and time. 

The Promise introduces two strong but very different first-person voices - Catherine, the middle class woman from Ohio and Nan, the poor woman from the back swamps of Galveston. Together they tell their story and the other's story as they see it. Weisgarber handles these shifting perspectives beautifully and has an unerring feel for the subtleties of each woman's voice. 

I don't want to get too much into the details of the plot even though this isn't a twisty novel with lots of narrative turns. It's that rare novel about character and place and how the two interact and I felt as thought I was in Galveston, Texas in 1900 for every minute I read it. Weisgarber has been nominated for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for this novel and there is no question she deserves to win the award - this is what historical fiction should be. She uses a famous historical event - the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 - to recreate what life was like and to allow the reader to care about long-ago lives that aren't all that different from our own. 

My only problems with the book? I read it too quickly. I was sad to leave the world of the novel and wanted to stay and see what happened next. I also wish the novel had a better title and a more arresting cover - it led me to dismiss the book and consign it to the massive review copy pile. 

Thanks to Unabridged Chick's glowing review  - I picked it up and took another look. I worry that other readers might have the same silly first impression that I did and miss this gorgeous novel. It will definitely rank as one of my favorites of 2014. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review

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