The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
Author: Ann Weisgarber
Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th Century / Galveston / Texas / Natural Disaster / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Skyhorse Publishing (4/1/2014)
Rating: Loved! A top ten read of 2014.
Did I finish?: Oh yes.
One-sentence summary: Two women from different lives are bound together through a man and his child in 1900 Galveston
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Actually, I'm kind of meh about it.
I'm reminded of...: Angela Davis-Gardner, Erika Mailman, Julie K. Rose
First line: There wasn't nothing good about funerals.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy! (Or borrow, but you want to read this one.)
Why did I get this book?: I love the premise and I adored Weisgarber's debut novel.
Review: In 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting and era, unbelievable heroine, fabulous historical detail. It got tons of love (lots of wonderful prize nominations), and most recently, was praised at a writing class I took -- all for good reason.
Weisgarber's newest surpasses my love for Rachel Dupree. I'm in that flail-y, can't speak coherently kind of place with this review, so I'll just say this: read this book, stat!
Set in Galveston, Texas in 1900, ahead of the devastating hurricane, the novel follows two women loosely bound together by Oscar, a dairy farmer, and his five year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden is a neighbor, a hearty woman asked by Andre's mother, on her deathbed, to care for him. Devoted to the boy, and half in love with Oscar, Nan's unprepared and angry when he suddenly remarries.
Catherine Wainwright is from a monied Ohio family, college educated and gifted at piano. But she falls from grace (and society) when her affair with her crippled cousin's husband comes to light, and renews her acquaintance with Oscar, whom she knew when they were children. Recently widowed, he proposes after a few letters, and she accepts with resignation that grows when she arrives in Galveston.
Despite the seeming love triangle set up, this isn't a novel about who wants who. Instead, it's a book about family connections, secrets, obligations and the assumptions we make; Weisgarber describes an emotional storm ahead of the very real hurricane we know is coming.
The descriptions of place are just stunning. I know nothing about 1900s Galveston, and Weisgarber paints a world hot, steamy, bustling, and lonely. (It turns out Galveston the city is also on Galveston the island; Catherine and I both assumed she'd be living in the city, but it turned out she was going to live out on the island.) Catherine as an outsider means Weisgarber can load up on details about what Galveston was like, but it never feels awkward, heavy, for infodump-y.
The writing generally is just lovely, too: Nan and Catherine have two distinctive voices, their own views and prejudices, their own keen observations and their own blindnesses. But there's poetry and lovely evocation of place and mood through the book.
It was a sorrowful time; there wasn't no other way to put it. What the storm did to us was cruel, and I won't never forget it. Or forgive it. The storm did what it wanted and then blew itself out, leaving us to try to put things right. But some things can't be put right. (p290)A must read for historical fiction fans, as well as anyone who a love for Texas. This is a wonderfully emotional novel, too, in the vein of women's contemporary fiction, and I think those who aren't sure they like hist fic might want to consider this one for its exploration of love and family. A top ten read for 2014, hands down.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Promise to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 5/9. For another entry, see my interview with Ann Weisgarber.