The Promise was one of those books that had (and still has!) a lot of hype, and a lot of people told me I would love it – and that I would probably cry at some point during it. I therefore had quite high expectations. The blurb also attracted me.
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 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…
With echoes of The Fever Tree, and issues surrounding parent/child relationships, The Promise really appealed to me. I had never read anything by Ann Weisgarber, but knew her debut novel (The Personal History of Rachel Du Pree) was very well received and this new novel is highly anticipated. And I did enjoy this novel – just not as much as I thought I would…
The pace is pleasantly slow and Weisgarber’s writing is measured and confident. Catherine and Nan take turns to narrate, and so we see their situations from two angles. Multiple narrators are an effective device to demonstrate perspective within a story, and Weisgarber uses them well. At first their voices are distinctive, but towards the end they get more and more similar, though I’m not sure if this was intentional. Perhaps the hurricane (which takes up the final third of the book) forces them to learn from each other, and their ways of thinking become a little more similar.
There are classic, or at least well trodden, images here of one woman resenting another for entering her world so unexpectedly and taking a role she herself would like. The differences between Catherine and Nan are well demonstrated, but these contrasts get a bit clunky at times and not as subtle as I would have liked. There are moments of great beauty, but the problem for me was that the characters’ personalities were hinted at and explained a little, but they did not develop enough and I could not ‘get to know’ them as I would expect to. For me Catherine was the character who developed the most, but even then her personality was limited.
The Promise is described (both in press and by people who’ve read it) and very emotional and sad. It was these things, but just did not have quite the emotional punch I expected. Certain moments with five year old Andre were very moving, as he is grieving for his mother and trying to cling to the familiar Nan, while being expected to bond with the terse Catherine. I thought of my eighteen month old nephew and felt a tug at my emotions – but as with all moments with Andre in this book, it did not last long enough.
While I liked The Promise, I did not love it, but I would still recommend it to others and am glad I read it. It is a very good novel, but for me both the characters and the story just needed more development.
The Promise will be published in March 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.