The Things We Promise
by JC Burke
There are two things you need to know about me. The first is that I remember life by what I was wearing. The second is that I think too much.
It’s the early 1990s and all Gemma can think about is looking perfect for her first school formal. Gemma’s brother Billy – New York’s up and coming hair and make-up artist – has made her the ultimate promise: he’s returning home especially to ‘create magic’ on her and two friends for their end-of-year formal. Gemma’s best friend, Andrea, is convinced it’ll be their moment to shine; Gemma hopes it’s the night Ralph will finally notice her.
But when Billy arrives home from New York, Gemma’s life becomes complicated. Her family’s been keeping secrets; friendships are forged and broken; and suddenly the length of her formal dress is the least of her worries.
Set in a time of uncertainty and fear, The Things We Promise is a beautifully told novel that sings with emotion, humour and heartbreak.
Oh, this book just captures your heart!
It’s another of one of those pleasantly surprisingly books but not just ‘pleasant’ in that woah-its-actually-pretty-good way but in a woah-I-never-knew-that-my-life-has-changed way.
We are in the eyes of Gemma, a 16 year old girl looking forward to the day she goes to formal in a beautiful dress and her hair and makeup done by her talented brother, Billy who is living in New York. For about a quarter of the book, you don’t actually realise how great the story will be as you get slightly annoyed by Gemma’s extreme excitement for a day which is months away and the rants of her whiny and self-centred best friend, Andrea. But then an air of despair creeps in as you slowly discover, with Gemma, how sick her brother is.
The story is set in the 1990s but not just among its dynamic popular culture of scrunchies and chokers but also a time when HIV/AIDS was what everyone was talking and worried about. I absolutely love how this story dealt with homosexuality and the terrible way they are viewed by ignorant people but also the impact such an illness has on this community and loved ones. There are definitely moments in the book where your chest begins heaving from the immense sadness of these situations.
Billy’s boyfriend dies from AIDS and soon Billy (himself with HIV) returns home, wanting to spend his limited time with his family. The most unique aspect of this novel was how it describes the illness not only affecting the person but the people around them. Gemma is of course sad but more than that, is attempting to be ‘Polly Positive’ as she tries to be optimistic for her mother and brother. She deals with a new love, a friendship that is falling apart, a friendship that is coming together and tensions at school whilst she deals with her brother’s sickness, highlighting how HIV/AIDS affects every facet of her life. In addition, I love how Burke made the sickness such a major focus in Gemma’s life without having to compromise on telling Gemma’s story as a normal teenage girl in 20th century Sydney. Her budding new relationship with long time crush Ralph still has this great romantic effect without it interrupting the significance of HIV/AIDs in her life. Also, her friendship with Andrea slowly deteriorates as Andrea comes from an ignorant family, uncomfortable with Gemma’s family circumstance and Andrea herself not exactly being the most compassionate person but there is also a new friendship with Louisa and Vanessa – one of the more joyful aspects of the story among all the saddening events.
The book is incredibly well done in how it deals with so many sub-plots and themes in such a detailed and realistic manner – bullying, sexuality, tolerance, sickness, family, love, friendship and kindness. It’s so touching and relatable plus, I loved reading a story set in Sydney. This book is definitely evidence to why Australia YA fiction should be read and publicised more.