The Promise by Michelle Vernal
Two women from different generations brought together by another’s wrongdoing.
When British backpacker, Isabel Stark happens across a car accident on a lonely stretch of road in the South Island of New Zealand her life changes forever. The sole passenger, Ginny Havelock asks her to make a promise before she passes away—to find Constance and to say she’s sorry.
Isabel’s a lost soul who’s been drifting through life unsure of where she fits, and the promise she made in New Zealand haunts her upon her return to the United Kingdom. Her only clue as to finding Constance lies within a conversation held at Ginny’s funeral. It takes her to the Isle of Wight.
In the 1940’s sixteen-year-old Constance’s life on her island is sheltered until the death of her brother; Ted brings the reality of war crashing down around her. He leaves behind his pregnant young widow Ginny. When Constance meets a handsome Canadian Airforce man, she’s eager to escape her grief and be swept up by first love. It’s a love which has ramifications she could never envisage.
When Isabel and Constance’s paths finally cross will Ginny’s last words be enough for Constance to make peace with her past? And in fulfilling her promise will Isabel find a place she can call home?
What you will find in reading this novel is a tragic and emotional, tender and compassionate tale of two women, separated by some fifty years, and yet connected by bonds that surpass age and time.
Get the tissues; you’re going to need them.
The things people do to each other, and the pain we cause others through our egotism and selfishness, is appalling, and author Michelle Vernal paints a very recognisable picture of unforgivable behaviour. It also highlights how far we have come with regards to social stigma and shame. I don’t do crying, but several times I had wet eyes and heartache.
Isabel and Constance are fellow journeymen on the painful road of broken-hearts. Two women who are at different points in life but have much in common. They have suffered at the hands of those whom they trusted implicitly, and their pain is real and familiar. In the case of Constance, it has barely diminished in the seventy years since it happened. Yet they are strong; even if they don’t realise it themselves, others see it.
Having spent a considerable time travelling overseas, Isabel returns home after promising a dying woman (Ginny) that she would pass on a message. It is her return home that tells us the awful circumstances that caused her to escape abroad in the first place. Isabel initially appears to be lost, not knowing what she wants to do, or where she is going in life, but she feels compelled to at least try to fulfil the promise she made to Ginny. This positive act leads her to her destiny. A variety of events and incidents on the Isle of Wight result in her staying, at least for a while.
Isabel is a lovely character who doesn’t think she is brave, outgoing, or flamboyant and yet she has dyed her hair green and backpacked through Australia, New Zealand, and south-east Asia. She is clearly compassionate, and throughout the book demonstrates her deeply rooted kind and loving nature. She is the sort of person it would be easy to treat patronisingly, and certainly her ‘friends’ did and do. On her return home she recognises their superficiality, and realising that they have never been real friends, she moves on.
Early in her life Constance suffered devastating loss, yet instead of caving in under that grief, she becomes a colourful and vibrant young woman. The years have taken their toll however, and it appears to readers that Constance has turned into an acerbic old woman. Quite how anyone would come back from the extreme heartbreak she experienced, I cannot understand, but it goes some way to illuminate the amazing woman Constance is at heart. She has a penchant for Maltesers, and in my book that can only mean good things! Constance keeps herself to herself at the home, and the arrival of Isabel disrupts that mediocre existence. She warms to the young woman, and gradually they both emerge from their cocoons.
As we move from one time-line to another, and their stories unfold, we can probably guess the secret at the heart of Constance’s past. The sweet beauty of her romance, and subsequent events have a parallel of sorts in Isabel’s life that we discover later. Michelle Vernal has researched the war-time period well. It highlights common and heart-breaking events of the war years, the cruel way in which one aspect was dealt with and whose consequences have been far-reaching, even through to today.
The other characters are hilarious, annoying, lovely, and totally familiar. Rhodri is a delight, and I wish there had been a little more about him and his life. I felt terribly sorry for Prince Charles, poor thing. There were a couple of things that made me falter in my reading, particularly two words which I had to look up; ‘EFTPOS’ which we’d recognise as a Debit Card, and while ‘skivvy’ in this country means a servant, in AUS/NZ it’s an item of clothing. I felt the end was a little rushed, and could have done with one more chapter to fill in some details, but none of this spoils the story in any way.
Michelle Vernal has written a compelling tale of love and friendship; of confronting the past yet facing the future, and of always being true and loyal to yourself and to those who are loyal and true to you. I apologise for the seeming vagueness of this review, but I’m avoiding plot spoilers, readers need to let the story unfold in its own beautiful way. What I can tell you is that I adore this book and was moved by it, so much so that it is on my Books of the Year list and gets the full five stars. I suggest you get a copy and some tissues and read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Michelle Vernal is a Harper Collins author who loves a happy ending. She lives with her husband, their two boys and a needy three-legged black cat in Christchurch, New Zealand. She’s partial to a glass of wine, loves a cheese scone and has recently taken up yoga—a sight to behold indeed. She is a freelance writer for a Canterbury lifestyle magazine who is currently working on her seventh novel. Michelle’s a firm believer in happy endings, and all of her stories are written with humour and warmth.
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