Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Promises to Keep by Jane Green

Jane Green's characters are growing up. Sure, some of them are still looking for love, but many of them are now older and settled and facing the curveballs that life throws us all. In this wonderful, affecting tale of women, families, and friendship, she tackles that most heartrending of all curveballs: terminal illness.

Callie is a sought after photographer, happily married to the love of her life, and the mother of two young children. She is also a breast cancer survivor on the brink of her five years cancer-free. Her younger sister Steffi is becoming a celebrated vegan chef in NYC. She is a bit of a free spirit who has no desire to settle down and who has an instant attraction to the bad boys of the world, musicians, artists, etc. Lila, Callie's college roommate, has become an honorary sister to the Tollemache girls. She's very different from the radiantly happy Callie and the go-with-the-flow Steffi but she is finally in a relationship that fulfills her and allows her to be herself, even if her boyfriend is not a Jewish doctor but a Protestant Brit with a nasty ex-wife.

Callie's husband Reece travels often for work but when he is home, he and Callie have an incredibly strong and loving marriage. They live a fairly typical suburban existence, enjoying their friends, supporting their kids, and going about the daily life of living. Steffi, meanwhile is starting to get restless with her rock musician boyfriend so she offers to dog sit for Mason while he and his family spend a year in London. She knows that her boyfriend loathes dogs so she also knows that she is ending their relationship with this choice. Luckily Mason has a country home sitting untenanted only a few towns from Callie's that Steffi can use. This affords her the opportunity to change her life entirely, quitting her job and finding out what she really wants out of life, which surprisingly appears to include a quiet country life. Lila is moving on and committing whole heartedly to Ed and their future although she must decide whether her objection to motherhood or his desire to have more children (he has a son with his ex) will win out.

As all of their lives are moving forward, Callie starts to suffer from an intense headache that will not go away ultimately ending up in the hospital. When she is diagnosed with a recurrence of her cancer, this time contracting the rare leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, her family and friends circle around her as she travels a road that only she can travel.

Green has created likable, charming characters with whom the reader can identify. Even her minor characters like Walter and Honor, Callie and Steffi's incredibly mismatched parents, are well-rounded and realistic. And she has captured the devastation a terminal diagnosis has on everyone in this poignant and yet ultimately celebratory novel. As one life winds down, other lives must by definition continue forward despite the grief and uncertainty of the future and Green has illustrated this beautifully in the swirl of characters around Callie. There is some unecessarily heavy-handed foreshadowing of Callie's fate in the beginning of the book with reiterations of how happy and blessed she is in her life but overall, the whole of the gentle and loving narrative make this a minor flaw. The recipes following each chapter, are quite appealing even if sometimes a bit forced to fit with the narrative.

A look at abiding love and the constancy of family, this novel will probably appeal most to fans of women's fiction. And those who read the author's note about her friend Heidi will appreciate what a lovely tribute this is to a dear friend's memory.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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