In Galveston, Texas, in 1899, a dying woman demands a promise of her friend and housekeeper, Nan Ogden: to look after Andre, the dying woman’s son. Reluctantly Nan gives the promise, only to find herself caught up in a love triangle when Andre’s father brings home a new wife, a disgraced pianist called Catherine.
In 1900 the small island of Galveston was engulfed in a hurricane. Weisgarber has researched the time period and the storm thoroughly, although the novel wears its research lightly. The author also describes the surroundings and the weather with precision and elegance: “The barn was an island in a sea of water… The rain was a thousand waterfalls”. She has a real talent for focusing sharply on the small, poignant details of everyday life; for example, when near-destitute Catherine realises she should have brought a present when meeting Andre, she opens her purse: “My mirror. My comb. The torn halves of train tickets.” Later, she decides the best present will be “a shiny penny”.
I only have two minor complaints about this book: firstly, the pace sagged slightly in the middle, after Catherine has arrived but before the hurricane hits, as though the author is killing time waiting for the next event to happen. Secondly, the book is titled The Promise, but after Nan has made her promise none of the characters ever seem to reflect on it again, and it does not affect Nan’s decision-making processes at all. The Promise is beautifully written, and its characters are well-drawn, but the promise itself seems an afterthought tagged on as a prologue. Despite this, it is a worthy and enjoyable read from an author previously longlisted for the previously-named Orange Prize for Fiction.