I’m slightly ashamed to say that Ann Weisgarber’s debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, has sat on my bookshelves unread since I bought it in 2009, having been attracted by its longlisting for the Orange Prize. If it’s half as good as this one, it won’t be sitting on my shelves for much longer. The Promise was a simply wonderful read.
Set in 1900, Catherine Wainwright – a pianist –embarks on an ill-fated affair with a married man and finds herself ostracised by the community in Dayton, Ohio. She takes up the offer of marriage to Oscar Williams, a former admirer who was beneath her notice while delivering coal in his youth. He is now a widowed dairy farmer, living a thousand miles away (and in a very different world) in Galveston Island in Texas, and Catherine travels there to start her new life. She fares badly at first – not used to running a home and getting her hands dirty, she struggles to fit in. Her home is run by the other “voice” of the story, Nan Ogden, the daughter of a neighbouring ranch, a former friend of Oscar’s late wife, who made the promise to care for Oscar’s young son Andre and had perhaps thought that she would step into her shoes and take her place in Oscar’s life. Caroline also faces a challenge in engaging with Andre, a well drawn young character who is still grieving for his mother and fails to be won over by his father’s new wife, who can’t cook and corrects his speech at every opportunity.
The descriptions of the island are vivid, but so is the atmosphere – you can feel the sense of suffocation of a household still struggling to come to terms with their grief and loss. Catherine being a pianist, music also flows through the book – her playing on the upright piano purchased by Oscar for her arrival helps build emotional links with both Andre and Nan. And throughout it all, there is the overarching feeling of a community at the mercy of the environment surrounding it. Then the challenges of their new lives are overtaken by the need to survive the biggest storm in US history.
This is a book you feel and experience rather than read. The growing affection between Caroline and both Oscar and Andre gave me an almost physical ache – this is a book that portrays and evokes strong emotions while focusing on the little things of life, and I found it quite mesmerising. The voices of both Catherine and Nan are strong – both complex characters, neither entirely likeable, but totally engaging. By the end of the book I felt I’d been through an emotional wringer and fought the storm myself – but I loved every moment.