In Dayton, Ohio, in 1900, 29-year-old Catherine Wainwright re-establishes a correspondence with an old friend, Oscar Williams, after her affair with her cousin's husband comes to light and brings shame upon her and her family. Oscar had used to deliver coal as a boy, but now he's a prosperous dairy farmer on Galveston Island down in Texas, a recent widower with a 5-year-old son, Andre.
Catherine, a talented pianist from a wealthy family, had never considered him as a suitor before, but now, she relates, "he was the only person whose letter was not cold or indifferent." When he offers marriage, which she both hoped for and was resigned to, she boards a southbound train in desperation, leaving her creditors behind.
The Promise smoothly alternates between the perspectives of Catherine, forced to adjust to more rustic circumstances and to marriage and a stepchild, and Nan Ogden, the younger woman who works as Oscar's housekeeper, having promised his late wife, her friend Bernadette, to take care of Andre. Nan secretly loves Oscar and is devastated he chose someone so different from her as his bride.
Through the women's narratives, the novel movingly depicts the loneliness of an outsider. Both are vulnerable in different ways. Not knowing how to cook, and unused to her new home's isolation and steamy climate, Catherine must depend on Nan to take care of her household. And Nan, despite her strong-willed nature, must stand by and say nothing as Catherine grows close to both Oscar and Andre. Both their voices feel authentic, Catherine's formality and perfect diction contrasting with Nan's easy knowledge of island life and her south Texas drawl.
A third woman plays a major role in the story, too. Bernadette only appears in flashbacks, but her presence comes alive on the page nonetheless. Ann Weisgarber creates such a compelling back story for her, a Louisiana Cajun who overcame a shameful background and enjoyed a loving marriage only to die young, that it makes you realize both how unfair and how precious life is.
The Williams home is built on a ridge, and on 8-foot stilts besides, but it, too, like everything else on Galveston Island, becomes vulnerable as a mammoth storm appears off the coast. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was America's most devastating natural disaster, with terrible loss of life and property. While I turned the pages rapidly, anxious to see how things turned out, I had to put the book down several times, fearful that characters I'd come to care about might be hurt.
Rich in description and emotion, The Promise is highly recommended for admirers of character-centered historical novels. It was a deserving finalist for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
The Promise is published in trade paperback by Skyhorse on May 5th, with the new cover art above (336pp, $14.99). I read it from a personal copy, having purchased the UK hardcover last year.