Review: The Things We Promise by J. C. Burke

The Things We Promise book cover

The Things We Promise (Allen & Unwin, Mar. 2017) is the heartbreaking story of an Australian family dealing with the reality of AIDS at a time when the disease was shrouded in stigma and poorly understood.

Genre: Historical YA

The Blurb

It’s the early 1990s and all Gemma can think about is looking perfect for her first school formal. Her brother, Billy—an up-and-coming make-up artist—has made her the ultimate promise: he’s returning home from New York especially to ‘create magic’ on her and two friends for the 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 then Gemma discovers that Billy’s life in New York isn’t as fabulous as she’s imagined it to be. 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.

If you’re in need of a good cry, this, my friend, is the book for you. I had a couple of niggling minor criticisms, and I want to get those out of the way before I get into what I thought worked really well (and there was a lot that worked really, really well). Stay tuned for the good stuff. (Forgive me. Pregnancy brain’s like: ‘What be review structure? Words is hard. Let’s nap!’)

In the beginning, Burke makes a point about fashion being Gemma’s thing. And because of this, the formal—and more specifically, her formal look—is an especially huge deal for her. However, Burke doesn’t give much evidence of Gemma’s love of fashion throughout the book. Sure, Billy’s boyfriend, Saul, sends Gemma a winter coat from New York that she absolutely loves, there’s a pair of designer earrings she really wants and she stresses a bit about what fabric her formal dress will be made from, but other than that, I didn’t get the sense she really cared that much about fashion. In fact, she often wears the same Levi 501s and black top. I think she even refers to it her ‘uniform’. It wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the fact that a big part of Gemma’s arc is her realisation that these superficial things aren’t that important, at least not compared to family and friends, and that point would have been clearer if she was more of a material girl in the beginning.

At times, I also found Gemma a tricky character to empathise with. For much of the story, she’s extremely self-centred, which, while realistic, isn’t exactly endearing. When she learns how AIDS is affecting her brother’s life and the lives of his friends, she somehow manages to make it all about her. Sure, it’s her story and she does slowly learn to put others’ needs before her own, which is kind of the point, but there were still moments where I wanted to grab her and yell, ‘NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU!’ To be honest, this felt like more of a problem with Gemma’s friends than Gemma herself. They all have their own lives and problems—some of them really big, difficult problems—and are complex, well-drawn characters, but (with the exception of Andrea, The Antagonist) they continually drop everything for Gemma, as though resigned to their role as supporting cast members. I see this in a lot of YA narratives and it bugs me no end. The love interest, Ralph, is the worst. He really doesn’t seem to have anything better to do than drive around in the hopes of spotting Gemma and offering her a lift. It’s a little creepy. Like, dude, get a hobby.

I also just wasn’t a huge fan of Gemma having a love interest. On one level he works, in that he’s part of Gemma’s wider life outside the AIDS ward and represents a hope for her future, which is somewhat necessary given how bleak this story gets. But does the silver lining have to be in the form of a boyfriend? He feels like a kinda shitty consolation prize.

Wow. I’m really making it sound like I wasn’t into The Things We Promise. In truth, I loved it. It’s the kind of book that hits you right in the feels. The characters, particularly Gemma’s family members, feel incredibly real and I got a clear sense of early 90s Australia, and of the cultural centre being somewhere else—Gemma hears about all the coming trends from her brother in New York many months before they reach her school. I’d forgotten that sense of disconnect! It reminded me of taking a trip to the US with my family when I was thirteen and the absolute novelty of buying clothes from American Eagle and Gap (which were cool at the time and near impossible to get here), and of suddenly being the most popular girl in year eight upon my return (for a day, at least) because I’d seen a couple of Dawson’s Creek episodes that wouldn’t air here for another six months.

I thought a story exploring the AIDS epidemic of the early 90s, and people’s attitudes about it in Australia was a clever choice. It’s something that the target readership is too young to remember. And it seems that a lot of the fictional texts that have been created about it, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are American. As a teenager, I remember watching things like Rent and Philadelphia. But of course, it happened here too. I learned a lot, and more than that, Burke uses those early 90s attitudes about AIDS as a vehicle to explore the wider issue of how we treat those whom we perceive as different and the way fear can rob people of their compassion and empathy.

While AIDS is the major issue Gemma and her friends navigate in The Tings We Promise, there’s also a subplot that explores sexual assault, specifically the way victims of sexual assault are stigmatised, and the prevailing perception that women who are sexually assaulted must have somehow invited it, just as AIDS sufferers in the late 80s and early 90s were seen as having brought the disease on themselves. I thought this was a fitting parallel and served to illustrate a larger point about victim blaming.

I’ve said before that I’m not crazy about issue-based YA narratives. They too often feel heavy-handed and flat, and they can read as though the author is speaking down to the reader, trying to teach them a lesson. But Burke approaches her subject with compassion and nuance and lets her characters steer the story rather than serving as mere agents of ideas.

At times, The Tings We Promise is a harrowing read. I blubbed a lot. But it’s also uplifting and shows how we can make each other’s lives that little bit easier when we come together and support each other rather than drawing dividing lines and unfairly stigmatising those who are already suffering.

Four stars

See The Things We Promise on Goodreads and purchase through AmazonBooktopia or Book Depository.

A big thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of The Things We Promise in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and six advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

—Margot XO 

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