Thursday, May 20, 2010

A BOOK OF LOSS, LOSS AND RENEWAL--JANE GREEN"S PROMISES TO KEEP

Readers unfamiliar with  brand names such as Goyard Mallerie, Jean Schlumberger, Lily Pulitzer, Merrell, Van, Seven and Vera Wang  will find Jane Green’s bestselling novel PROMISES TO KEEP hard going. Those with little interest in the trappings of affluent suburban families will be tempted to stop reading after a couple of chapters. That would be a mistake. True,  the first half of Green’s book is a frothy farrago of upper middle-class trivia. Characters move in world where nearly everyone adores each other as they flutter around houses furnished with “squishy” sofas, Swedish bureaus and  Gustavian side tables.  Men make the real money while women dabble at photography, cook-- one gets the sense that if deprived of extra-virgin olive oil and  quinoa they might have a serious identity crisis.  They are cool, they totally get each, they  have mani-pedis, and shop at Ralph Lauren’s, and hold Book Club meetings,
“During the summer  the women all wear dresses. Bright colored silk or chiffon sundresses with strappy sandals, their skin glowing as they sip pomegranate martinis…”  Some sandals.
  Throughout the text, there are a number of fumbles better  editing ought to have caught. For example, American English speakers rarely, if ever, say groundnut and postbox instead of  peanut and mailbox. Beirut is in Lebanon, not Morocco and the following sentence is at best unclear,
“He had …chicken.. .in a Moroccan restaurant, and sat drinking Turkish coffee as if he were in Beirut…” It might be OK for a Jewish character to say that “WASPS drink and Jews eat,” but in my neck of the woods sensitive  readers frown at the perpetuation of such hoary stereotypes.
These quibbles aside, the second half of PROMISES TO KEEP  is  a terse account of a woman facing the recurrence of a deadly illness. How she, her husband, their two children, her parents and her sister confront a bleak prognosis is the real story.
Green is in familiar territory when she writes about love and loss. Not too long ago she lost a beloved friend to cancer. Her tribute to that  friend is a  particularly moving part of the novel.  Green  writes well about children, blended families and the aftershocks of divorce.
PROMISES TO KEEP  is a strange hybrid--part fun summer lit, part cookbook--chapters alternate with recipes--part documentation of the impact  a devastating disease can have on people’s lives. All in all, it is worth reading.

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