A quick review of an wonderfully-exhausting book.
During a recent week at the beach, I allowed myself to fall deeply into a world created by five-book-old local author Barbara Claypole White, the self-proclaimed “Mad Brit.” Barbara, a petite and bubbly, gin-loving, red-wine-loving woman who lives a few towns over from me, makes me laugh with her Facebook posts, gives wonderful author visits, conducted one of the best writing workshops I’ve ever taken, and writes beautiful, all-consuming novels that not only shred the reader’s sympathetic heartstrings but also educates them about mental illness.
In The Promise Between Us, BCW gives us the gut-wrenching, heart-filled story of Katie Mack, a woman who left her family nine years earlier after giving birth to Maisie because she was convinced she would harm the child. Her OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) had her firmly in its grip, its voice loud and clear and commanding. Only by escaping what she believed would be the inevitable was she able to save both her daughter’s life and her own. Eventually, Katie learned to recognize and work with her illness and turn her pain, energy, and efforts into welding metal sculptures.
Katie ends up in Durham after living in Asheville because she follows her mentor to his sculpture studio. Katie’s ex-husband Callum, new (pregnant) wife Lilah, daughter Maisie, and Callum’s best friend Jake live in Raleigh, and by accident, Katie and Maisie meet. This chance meeting is fortuitous, for Maisie’s own OCD is beginning to show its dark hand, and Katie is now equipped to help her. The problem is, will Katie break her promise to Callum to stay away forever?
Told via five viewpoints, The Promise Between Us is mesmerizing and absorbing, from the opening to the closing words. The characters are well drawn, characters who are human and flawed, ordinary in the larger universe, but astonishing in the daily battles they fight. In that sense, I am reminded of how Anne Tyler’s characters live and breathe ordinary air in extraordinary circumstances.
Barbara’s gift is that the reader truly gets a sense – if even a pinch – of how OCD tries to control one’s thoughts. Well-placed, highly-repetitious, relentless, thoughts pummel Katie’s brain, and she must regain control by repeating affirmations.
“A thought is just a thought, not an action. It can’t hurt anyone; it has no power.”
“I control fire; I am strong.”
It is an exhausting read, albeit in a particularly satisfying way. BCW writes with great insight into mental illness because it’s important to her. There is no doubt about that, and yet she very carefully and skillfully never lectures or points fingers.
Author Lee Smith said about the book, “This brilliant novel about obsessive-compulsive disorder is compulsively readable.”
Lee Smith, an amazing, best-selling, and local author herself, is right.
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P.S. I particularly loved two of the settings in Downtown Raleigh: CAM-Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum-Raleigh) and Videri Chocolate Factory … right across the street from The Pit (a great rib place for those who like ‘em). If you ever visit Raleigh, you must go to all three.