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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, character-driven historical fiction., 12 Mar 2013
By 
L. H. Healy "Books are life, beauty and truth." (Cambridgeshire, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Set in 1900, this moving novel tells of a talented young pianist, Catherine Wainwright, who leaves Dayton, Ohio having been involved in a scandalous affair and subsequently found herself ostracized by the community. In desperation she starts writing once more to the man she once corresponded with years before and who admired her back then, Oscar Williams. They agree to marry, and Catherine travels hundreds of miles to Galveston in Texas, where Oscar has now made a life for himself. He is recently widowed, with a young son named Andre, and his housekeeper Nan who promised Oscar's late wife Bernadette that she would care for Andre.

Everything about her new environment is a shock to Catherine; meeting Oscar and getting to know him again after all the time that has passed, learning to deal with a young child who misses his mother as well as the housekeeper who has a firmly established place in the household, getting used to the remote, unfamiliar place that is now her home, coming to terms with having left everything she has known hundreds of miles away. So much change, so much upheaval for Catherine.

Then there is Nan, who has her promise to take care of Andre, but who is distrustful and suspicious of Catherine when she arrives, and wonders at the different behaviour and ways she brings with her. For Nan, Catherine's arrival also means that the romantic feelings for Oscar that she has tried to hide will now never be reciprocated. Whilst they are all dealing with these new relationships and struggles, the biggest test of their lives comes from nature in the form of the worst storm in US history.

This is a very absorbing and well-crafted historical novel, with a firm sense of place and time that I felt totally transported to. Ann Weisgarber has created two distinctive and strong female voices as narrators in Nan and Catherine. I felt sadness for Nan because she loves Oscar too and has to witness the affection that he shares with Catherine. Nan is such a key part of the household yet she is always slightly on the outside, whereas Catherine arrives and is immediately part of Oscar and Andre's family, which is understandably hard for Nan to stomach. Catherine looks to make a new start in Galveston with Oscar, having been in a desperate situation and seen this as her last opportunity. I admired Oscar, who had traveled south years before and made a home and life for himself, and who is a kind and trusting man. As I read, I was intrigued as to how these characters would relate to each other and what conflicts may arise. The author captures and portrays the subtleties of the relationships really well, with small moments that have huge significance.

Music is an important theme in the novel; it is such an important means of expression for both women, and the contrast in their styles mirrors the contrast in their personalities and backgrounds, yet music also unites them and suggests that they may not be that different after all, deep down.

The novel highlights the vulnerability of humans to the devastating forces of nature, with the author combining the real storm that took place in Galveston, Texas, with her fictional tale. It is a beautifully understated, character-driven story of promises and secrets, of disgrace and suspicion, of jealousy and love, and it is a compelling and emotional read which I greatly enjoyed. I shed a tear at the end.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prepare to read all night, 4 Feb 2013
By 
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I loved Ann Weisgarber's other novel, so couldn't wait to grab this when it came up on Vine. Lovers of literary or historical fiction will find this a fascinating account of the Galveston disaster - a hurricane and tidal wave that swept the shores of Texas at the turn of the 20th century.

The two women telling the story have very distinct voices and I felt myself alternately rooting for first one and then the other.From different backgrounds, the two women are forced into each others company by their relationships with the same man, Oscar, and the child,Andre,left behind after the death of his first wife.

The relationship between the women is naturally uncomfortable, but this is subtly drawn, and never vocalised. The two main characters, Catherine and Nan, each tell it how it was for them, their view of the other, and great tension arises fromn this. The settings are so real you think you have been there. When the hurricane strikes the drama is all in the characters - in a way they make an impression far bigger than the hurricane, though that too is beautifully descibed. Poignant and moving, I was gripped and stayed up late to finish it - highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simply wonderful read, 6 April 2013
By 
Welsh Annie (Wetherby) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Willa Cather did not live in vain, 4 May 2013
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
The prologue of THE PROMISE describes the funeral of Bernadette, pregnant wife of Oscar and mother to Andre. It takes place in Galveston, Texas - the extremity of Cajun country - in 1899. Bernadette has perished of complications associated with malaria. In Dayton, Ohio, piano teacher Catherine has established a somewhat scarlet reputation for herself via a relationship with Edward, husband to an invalid wife. At a time of particular ostracism Catherine seeks out Oscar, an old school friend, and travels with him to Galveston to be his wife, but finds his home already under the charge of the redoubtable Nan Ogden. Something of a snob, Catherine lives in dread of news from Ohio which will expose her as debtor and adulteress. Somewhat usurped by the arrival of Catherine, Nan turns out to be a formidable fiddle player, and who soon elects to leave the household, just as Catherine begins to establish herself. On Nan's last day, a hurricane approaches, to which the locals are well accustomed and Catherine completely alien.

THE PROMISE consists of two separate first person narratives by Nan and Catherine. The two are only differentiated stylistically, but there is no mistaking one for the other, though the differences between the two are often quite subtle. Both are told in the faultless vernacular voices of the characters and are wholly convincing. This is very accomplished writing as expressed through the voices of the two first person protagonists. The novel is set in 1900 and the voices are both women of similar age, one educated and northern, the other rural Texan. No trickery is used to differentiate the two but they are nonetheless clearly differentiated by the overall personalities of the two and by markers early in each passage which clearly indicate who is speaking.

We have been somewhat deluged by `Katerina' books over the last few years and, more often than not, bashed on the head by flotsam and jetsam. Every writer who ever went to Louisiana, heard a jazz record or stood in a high wind seems to have written a hurricane book.

THE PROMISE stands head and shoulders above anything I have come across. I was instantly engaged, drawn in by the power of Weisgarber's style and thereafter simply pulled along by the power of the narrative. It is a very clever book. In a world awash with Hurricane Katerina books, it is a joy to come across one which has an original take on the matter, and seems to simply be a good story well told, rather than a writer straining to make something out of nothing.

Third, the story is simple, engaging and without any real originality. Although the marriage was instigated by Catherine, she is nonetheless the `mail order bride' which was not unusual at the time, with the rejected Nan acting as her foil. The fact that we have more or less `heard it all before', for once means that we are not distracted by faulty or ridiculous plot lines. The story has a natural flow to it: the characters (and the storm) are allowed to simply act out their drama without being tortured by cruel and unusual authorship.

Finally, there are a number of smaller issues.
* Weisgarber give almost no physical descriptions of her characters, which is both a bold offering to the reader's imagination and a gamble (or coercion) to ensure that Nan and Catherine are set apart from one another through their character and behavior rather than the redness of their hair or the relative spread of their hips.
* I have no idea how `authentic' the 1900 voices are, but I am convinced by them when almost invariably I find such gimmicks incompetent, pretentious or merely annoying.
* One gets sick of reading first person novels which are really just about the author. Both Nan and Catherine seem to be genuinely fictional creations of Weisgarber's imagination.
* The story (like Andre) belongs to Nan at the outset but quickly changes hands and is taken over by Catherine. Nan is powerless throughout (while Catherine exerts a lot of control) and her one attempt to assert herself has a hurricane driven straight through it. By the end, both the novel and Andre have been `taken back' by Nan. This aspect of construction is probably what makes THE PROMISE so worthwhile and renders it a genuine work of literature, rather than just another novel. THE PROMISE is well able to stand deconstruction. It has been written with genuine literary intent rather than mere narrative and that intent has been executed.

One could draw similar analogies to books like ETHAN FROME or WUTHERING HEIGHTS, where structure, style, theme and plot are all chiseled out of the same bit of rock and inseparable from one another. The greatest trick an author has is to be able to conceal the amount of work that went into a book from the reader. As soon as your work looks `laboured' or even simply to be `a work', you have made yourself into an artisan. Reading THE PROMISE almost all of the `work' which has gone into banging it out is hidden.

As the story of two women (or three) competing for one man, and one child, in a bleak and desolate place and time, THE PROMISE is more than adequate. If there was no meaning beyond the simple story, it would still be a very fine book: well above average, a masterpiece of `woman against the frontier'. As an allegory (though I know this is not the right word!) for Katerina, it is really unsurpassable. I'm staggered, genuinely. This is a real work of art and Weisgarber is going to be with us for a very long time.

Willa Cather did not live in vain. Hallelujah.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Read, 15 Mar 2013
By 
Lovely Treez (Belfast, N Ireland) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Ann Weisgarber's debut novel The Personal History of Rachel Dupree was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. Her second novel The Promise looks like it will attract similar plaudits.

Set in the US in 1900, we are told the story of young pianist Catherine Wainright who is left in desperate circumstances following an inappropriate liaison with a married man. Shunned by the "proper" folk of Dayton, Ohio she grasps at straws in an effort not to be totally "ruined". By reigniting a friendship with a former admirer she manages to rescue her reputation but this requires her moving a thousand miles away to Galveston Island, Texas. Her rescuer, recently widowed dairy farmer Oscar Williams is a quiet, reserved man but he does his utmost to help Catherine settle in.

This is a compelling read peopled with characters who will engage the reader. Catherine sticks out like a sore thumb with her townish ways but you feel for her as she struggles to adjust to reduced circumstances, a stifling climate and a grieving step-son, Andre. Whilst Oscar's housekeeper, Nan Ogden, does not overtly reject the new Mrs Williams she feels unable to give a wholly warm welcome to the newcomer.

I loved the vivid descriptions of the island and you get a very strong sense of the isolation of the islanders, always at the mercy of the elements, both the sweltering sun and the unpredictable waters. Equally prevalent in the story is the theme of music and how it affects people's emotions, creating a spark between Catherine and Oscar, building bridges between Catherine and Andre and, in Nan's case, resurrecting feelings she'd prefer to keep buried.

A powerful, moving story which is sure to garner even more fans for this talented author.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, 20 April 2013
By 
elsie purdon "reads too much" (dorset uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This author is new to me but I shall definitely have to read her previous novel as this is so beautifully written and so vivid that it was like reading an account by someone who was there at the time.

There are two narrators, Catherine and Nan. Nan Ogdon living in Galveston, Texas, was the best friend of Bernadette who sadly dies in the first chapter leaving behind her husband Oscar and four year old son Andre. Bernadette makes Nan promise to take care of her son, which she does. As the chapter ends I expected the story to continue with Nan becoming part of the family but the next chapter introduces Catherine, a professional pianist living in Dayton Ohio.
Catherine is in a fix, after being caught having an affair with a married man she is in disgrace and has lost all her work. No longer able to provide for herself her mother tells her to marry and Catherine remembers Oscar from school days. It is 1900 and options for women were very limited, Catherine has to marry.

Later in the book when all the characters are together it is the writing that makes every single word or gesture by each character so full of meaning and effect that the reader becomes totally immersed in the story. This is set in a time when people did not say what they meant or let it all hang out and so pain and misunderstandings are harder to clear up

Sadly the great hurricane of 1900 is on it's way and Galveston is in for the worst weather storm it has ever known.
A very moving story, carefully written. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Melancholy, moving and heartfelt, 13 April 2013
By 
Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a tightly-told tale, short but moving with a lovely melancholy mood throughout. Set in turn of the century America, the elements of this story aren't particularly revelatory: a forward-thinking, college educated woman who falls foul of convention, an arranged marriage, a triangle of two women and one man... but the way these motifs come together lift the book out of the ordinary.

Weisgarber writes beautifully, in lovely clean, precise, and uncluttered prose. Nothing feels forced, or awkward, or stretched, and the voices of her two female narrators are themselves indicative of character.

This starts off fairly slowly, but the gradual blossoming of the relationship between Catherine and Oscar is exquisitely done, moving with a delicate sensitivity towards a tragic dénouement.

This is a hushed, reflective book but one which is deceptively and quietly powerful.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A subtle and beautiful love story, 25 Mar 2013
This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Ann Weisgarber's first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and her second is even better. It tells the story of Catherine, a pianist fleeing from scandal in 1900 Ohio. Out of desperation, she agrees to marry a former suitor, Oscar, who has moved to Galveston, Texas. She finds in Galveston a society very different to the one she has left,a husband she barely knows--and a stepson.

The story is told through the eyes of Catherine and Oscar's housekeeper, Nan, who has deep feelings of her own for Oscar. Both narrators are poignantly brought to life in Weisgarber's precise and subtle prose. By the time Catherine has understood her feelings, her newfound happiness is threatened, literally, by a storm on the horizon.

Ann Weisgarber brings to life in thrilling detail a time and a way of life long gone. As the storm sweeps towards Galveston, imperilling Catherine and everyone she loves, I defy you to put The Promise down. This is a superb novel from a writer at the peak of her powers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard Times....................., 19 Mar 2013
By 
laineyf "widnes" (warwickshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
'The Promise' by Ann Weisgarber turned out to be much more than I originally thought it would be. It's set in 1900, and is the story of Catherine, a 'disgraced' young woman who becomes embroiled in a very unsuitable affair, and is ostracised by Ohio society. She moves to Texas, to Galveston to be exact, with it's bayous, mosquitos and rattle snakes. Life on Galveston Island is much different to polite Dayton, Ohio. Life for Catherine is totally changed, and she finds fitting in with the lifestyle extremely difficult. Then, disaster strikes. The worst U.S. national disaster of the twentieth century happened in Galveston in 1900 when the city was submerged in 15ft of water, and thousands were killed. There was massive destruction caused by the storm and flooding, livestock and buildings being washed away completely. The description of the storm, the fear and the tension building up is just brilliantly done. 'The Promise' is beautifully written, very descriptive, and highly absorbing reading. Highly recommended.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A second triumph for this author!, 31 Jan 2013
By 
F. M. M. Stott (Devizes, Wiltshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Promise (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Ann Weisgarber's outstanding debut - The Personal History of Rachel Dupree - was a hard act to follow, but this beautiful novel, while quite different, more than met my expectations.

The year is 1899, and on her death bed, a young mother asks her neighbour, Nan - a young woman who works for her - to promise to care for Andre, her four-year-old son, after her death. Nan, who loves Andre, and has feelings for his father Oscar, agrees.

Hundreds of miles away in Ohio, Catherine, a successful pianist, has an affair with a married man. She is found out, and with her reputation and her career in ruins, looks for an escape. She used to know Oscar, and that he was very attracted to her, and she begins a corrspondence with him. Although they haven't met for some years, she agrees to marry him to escape from her situation, and with trepidation she makes the long journey to his farm in Galveston.

Life on the farm is very different to the one Catherine is used to. The house is primitive; the terrain, a spit of land surrounded by water, unfamiliar. Unaccustomed to domestic work of any kind, she has great trouble adapting to both her new situation and her marriage to a man she no longer really knows. Meanwhile, Nan, jealous and scornful, watches her new mistress floundering, resenting her presence in the house.

The relationship between the two women is beautifully drawn. The narrative is told from their alternating viewpoints, and while the reasons for their mutual resentment are clear - both certainly have their faults - it is impossible not to sympathise with them both. The awkward, fumbling relationship between Oscar and Catherine is also very believable, as well as Catherine's fear of Oscar's reaction should he ever find out the reason for her previous disgrace.

As the novel build up to its terrible climax and the devastating hurricane that swept Gslverston in 1900, the tension between the characters and their desperate battle with the elements becomes almost unbearable, and I found myself carrying the book around with me as I had to know what happened next. The description of the hurricane is wonderful; the reader is drawn right into the wind, the rain, the mud, and the frantic struggles of the people affected.

Although this is a work of fiction, the hurricane and the casualties it inflicted are true, and have been meticulously researched, and this lends the novel additional power. A literary novel that is also readable, accessible, and gripping is a rare thing. Ann Weisgarber has carried this off to perfection.

I gather she is currently working on her third book. I, for one, can't wait to read it!
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The Promise
The Promise by Ann Weisgarber (Hardcover - 14 Mar 2013)
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