Review: The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber
Skyhorse, 2014. $25
The Promise is one of the best novels I’ve read in years, a brave, exacting, often painful work, the type that takes a premise elegant in its simplicity and explores its depths.
Catherine Wainwright was brought up to appreciate and expect the finer things, including the music by which she makes her meager living. However, in this year of 1900, an independent woman’s place is precarious, to say the least, and Catherine has made a costly blunder. An affair with her cousin’s husband has made her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, too hot for her to live in. Polite society cuts her dead, parents cancel their children’s piano lessons with her, and her nascent concert career vanishes. Owing back rent she can’t pay and cut off from the man she loves, she realizes marriage is the only answer.
Accordingly, she resumes her correspondence with a Dayton man who has moved to Galveston, Texas, and become a dairy farmer. When they were at school together, Oscar Williams always liked her, and he intrigued her too, in his way. And as it happens, when Catherine writes Oscar again, he’s recently widowed and has a five-year-old boy to think of. After a few more letters pass back and forth, Oscar proposes marriage, and Catherine accepts–without telling him about her disastrous affair.
In Galveston, she finds a different level of heat from Dayton, and not just from the stifling, insect-ridden climate. She shares a bed with a man she doesn’t love, worries that his Dayton relatives will have told him about her, feels deeply hurt by her former lover’s treatment of her, and doesn’t know how to approach her stepson, Andre. Then there’s Nan Ogden, a young woman who keeps house for Oscar and looks after Andre. Nan resents the new Mrs. Williams and fancies Oscar for herself, but she doesn’t let herself think about it, which makes her character all the more fascinating. The two women narrate the novel in their very different voices. What they see (or don’t) in themselves or their adversary turns their already fraught triangle into high drama, even when the action concerns sweeping the floor or making coffee.
The Promise therefore delivers what I’ve come to believe is the key to good literary fiction. Like the musical Catherine communing with Beethoven, Weisgarber plays every note. She lingers over emotional transitions, finding many that lesser writers would miss or skim over, unpacking the compressed moments into their intriguing parts rather than summing them up in shorthand. Yet the narrative moves at a crackling pace, because the author knows storytelling and her characters’ inner lives.
This all begins with Catherine’s flaws. At the start, she’s self-absorbed, entitled, and superior, disbelieving that her comedown should happen to her. She’s terrified of her new surroundings and the scrutiny she’s under:
I felt Nan Ogden watching from the house as I fumbled with the latch on the barnyard gate. The soft soil in the yard was churned with hoof prints, and flies buzzed around a pile of dung. Water streamed from the chin of the cow that stood at the trough, her unblinking eyes taking note of my every move . . . . I’d never been so close to a cow, and her size was alarming. So, too, was her udder. It resembled a balloon but one that was lined with swollen blood vessels. I hurried past her.
Prompted by necessity and Oscar’s patient insistence, Catherine unbends enough to discover hidden sides to him, Andre, and herself. She also reflects on how she must appear to others. Consequently, she grows within a short time, as does Oscar in her view, which further deepens the novel.
My only quarrel is the manner in which, fairly early, she admits her mistakes to herself and realizes her illicit lover wasn’t the man she thought he was. Her shame feels completely real–I connected with her right away over that–but don’t see what prompted these revelations at that moment.
Otherwise, The Promise is absolutely splendid.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.