Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Oscar Williams, a former coal delivery boy from Dayton, Ohio, has built a thriving dairy business on the gulf-exposed island of Galveston, Texas. Hardworking, generous, and self-effacing, Oscar has lost his young wife Bernadette to malaria and faces the prospect of raising his four-year-old son Andre on his own. Catherine Wainwright, Oscar's former classmate and unattainable first love who went on to become an accomplished pianist, revives the lapsed correspondence the two had once shared. Finding herself shunned by polite society for an extramarital affair with her cousin's husband and desperate to escape her difficulties, Catherine seeks out Oscar, hoping he will propose marriage. Without divulging her shame, she accepts his offer and abandons her cultured city life for a rough and arduous existence on the flat, sea-swept Texas island. Not only must she survive suffocating heat, snake-infested outhouses, the mistrust of a grieving child and her own guilty conscience, she must endure the disapproving animosity of Nan Ogden, the plain-spoken and devoted friend of Oscar's late wife, who has become his housekeeper and Andre's surrogate mother.
The two women could not be more different, and tale is narrated from their alternating viewpoints. Pride blinds each of them as they try to make sense of the other and of their feelings for Oscar. Although Nan won't admit it, she is more than a little in love with Oscar and jealous of the beautiful, incompetent woman he has chosen over her. Catherine, wounded from her failed affair, fights her growing attraction to Oscar and resists the refuge his kind gentleness and accepting reticence offer. As time goes on and Catherine begins to warm to Oscar's devotion, the situation becomes more than Nan can bear. But before she can make good on her decision to leave, a devastating hurricane hits the island, with tragic consequences. Tried by fear and danger, the women dig deep into themselves to protect Andre's fragile security and very life.
It is impossible not to view Oscar as a Christ-like figure, in love with Catherine despite her faults, eager to forget despite her unwillingness to seek forgiveness, patient, hopeful, kind and passionate. Recurrent appearances of pelicans, birds native to coastal waters but also traditional symbols of both Christian charity and the Redeemer himself, support this reading. Oscar admits a fascination with the birds, who manifest themselves at important moments in the book. His influence, compounded by the goodness and generosity of the simple island people she originally scorns, lead Catherine to a clarity about herself and her actions, revealing truths that she has long ignored. The question of whether Catherine has time to act upon this knowledge, however, keeps the reader turning pages as the storm bears down upon the island and threatens to snatch away the promise of a happiness that she does not deserve.
Ann Weisgarber is a masterful writer who plumbs the truths of the human condition while enthralling readers with tension-filled tales of characters caught in circumstances beyond their control. Her books offer a hope-filled vision of humanity that is missing from so many modern works. I was fortunate to read THE PROMISE last year when it appeared in a British edition and named it one of my "Best Reads of 2013." I appreciated it even more now upon a second read, and am thrilled that American readers now have the opportunity to enjoy it. I loved Weisgarber's first novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE (Viking 2010), longlisted for the Orange Prize, but THE PROMISE simply blew me away. If you read one book this year, make it this one.
THE PROMISE was inspired by a dilapidated house and by an interview Ann conducted when she was writing articles for a Galveston magazine. She wrote much of the novel in Galveston where pelicans glide along the surf and cows graze in pastures. Her debut novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE, was inspired by a photograph of an unknown woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. It was published in England and France before being published in the United States.
Ann, who splits her time between Galveston and Sugar Land, Texas, is currently working on her next novel that takes place in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, during the winter of 1888.
You can learn more about Ann at her website, which includes many historical photographs of Galveston the hurricane's aftermath.