Weisgarber's latest book, The Promise, did the same, holding me from first page to last.
Catherine Wainwright is a talented pianist, making her own way in 1899 Ohio. But she makes the mistake of believing a man's interest in her is true. She is marked as a fallen woman and shunned by her family, friends and acquaintances. The man has no intention of leaving his wife. With no one willing to hire or work with her and her debts mounting, Catherine's plight grows increasingly desperate. She casts about for a man that has not heard of her background, sending out letters to renew ties. One man replies - Oscar Williams. Oscar left Ohio as a young man and eventually landed in Galveston, Texas where he makes his living as a farmer. His wife Bernadette has just died, leaving him to raise their four year old son Andre. A local girl, Nan Ogden made Bernadette a promise - to look after Andre. But when Oscar brings home Catherine as his new wife, worlds, emotions and more collide.
Weisgarber has again created very strong, but different, female characters in Catherine and Nan. Both are well drawn, but I found myself drawn more to Nan. Her down to earth, practical attitude belies a caring heart. She is astute enough to sense the attraction between Catherine and Oscar and realize what is inevitable. I had a harder time with Catherine. Although her character transforms as the relationships between the three main characters evolve, I still had a difficult time accepting her.
"Oscar ate with the neighbour men and danced with the women, rural unrefined people, but that hadn't mattered to him. He enjoyed their company. He was without pretense and this, I realized, was what drew me to him."
She, however, is pretending, hiding her past and the desperate need to flee circumstances of her own making.
The narrative is alternated between Catherine and Nan, giving us an insider's view of each woman's thoughts. Interestingly, Oscar is never given a voice of his own. Rather, we learn of and about him from each woman's point of view.
Weisgarber again draws on historical events to set the backdrop for her novel. I was unaware of the geography and history of Galveston Island. (I did, of course, have to Google it after I finished the book.) 1900 Galveston was home to one of the US's greatest natural disasters. A hurricane inundated the island and city, killing 6,000 people in the span of a few hours. This event is pivotal to Weisgarber's story.
The setting is a character in the book as well, the heat and the storm almost tangible in Weisgarber's beautifully descriptive passages. Weisgarber has written a story rich with emotion, detail and history - definitely a recommended read. Read an excerpt of The Promise.
The Promise has been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The winner will be announced June 13, 2014. The other authors on the shortlist are Kate Atkinson, Eleanor Catton, Jim Crace, Andrew Greig, and Robert Harris. The Personal History of Rachel Dupree was long listed for the Orange Prize and short listed for the Orange Award for New Writers.
I have a copy of The Promise to give away to one lucky reader. Simply leave a comment (and a contact method) to be entered. Open to US and Canada. No PO boxes please. Ends June 7/14.