Burnt Promises is the second book in the Brooklyn and Bo Chronicles by Brenda Perlin and like its predecessor, Shattered Reality, is written with a searing honesty. Perlin’s style of faction is almost naked in its rawness; she offers us the bare details and leaves us to make of them what we will.
Where Shattered Reality presents Brooklyn’s life from childhood to her relationship with Bo, Burnt Promises focuses primarily on that relationship. Brooklyn meets Bo while they are both married to other people and the subsequent complications reflect a reality for a lot of people. Bo’s wife sets in motion divorce proceedings that drag them all through the mud and ultimately benefit nobody but the lawyers involved.
Brooklyn was raised in a traditional home, where she was expected to maintain high moral standards. Like many women, she was encouraged to put other people’s needs before her own and became a ‘people pleaser’. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Brooklyn judges herself more harshly than anyone else could. She is the one who labels herself a “home wrecker” and obviously feels a great deal of guilt over her failed marriage.
I think Burnt Promises actually works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an engrossing tale of a woman’s struggle to accept herself and make sense of her relationship but it is also a form of social history. Brooklyn’s story is such that it chronicles what life is like for many women who were born in the 1960s. The specifics may not be identical but there are many issues bubbling beneath the surface that I suspect lots of women will be able to relate to.
In common with many women, Brooklyn suffers from a lack of self-esteem, which leads her to a disastrous long term relationship with serial womaniser, Joey. Her inability to withstand Joey’s excuses exacerbate her feelings of worthlessness and her consequent attachment to Gerard, whom she marries, is primarily born out of the fact that he is nice to her. The marriage is doomed, Gerard is ten years Brooklyn’s senior and resents her free spirit, trying instead to control her. Brooklyn had a complex relationship with her father which has clearly impacted on her dealings with men, as her default setting seems to be to assume a passive role.
Despite marrying Gerard for the wrong reasons, Brooklyn tries to make it work, ignoring her own needs and feelings for fifteen years. When the marriage ends, it seems to Gerard to be out of the blue but that’s only because Brooklyn has never felt able to express her dissatisfaction with the relationship. It would have been easy for Perlin to cast Gerard as the villain of the piece but she goes to great lengths to show how he is damaged from his own parents’ divorce. He also takes good care of Brooklyn when she becomes ill with a neurological disorder but that consideration is not enough to base a marriage on. In fact, Brooklyn’s illness is a massive stress factor in a relationship that was never particularly strong to begin with. Brooklyn’s expectations for herself are so low, she probably would have settled for an unhappy marriage had she not met Bo, who represents a new beginning for her.
An interesting aspect of Burnt Promises is the way it reflects our society’s obsession with appearance and the impact that has on women. Exercise is a massive part of Brooklyn’s life; she was a fitness instructor prior to her illness and continues to spend a good deal of time in the gym after her recovery. There is poignancy in the fact that as she looks forward to a cruise with Bo, the first vacation of her adult life, one of her primary concerns is the potential weight gain she might experience. There is also a hilarious anecdote where Brooklyn compares her own lady parts to those of Pamela Anderson, whose vagina she has seen on a sex tape. At a time when young people are defining their own sexuality through porn and Brazilian waxes are the new norm, I found this episode incredibly relevant. Tellingly Bo’s ex-wife insults Brooklyn via her looks, which she obviously perceives as being more damaging than any other form of attack.
Perlin’s writing style is such that Brooklyn’s truth becomes the only truth. Even though I was aware that the novel is not necessarily autobiographical and, even if it were there are always many sides to any given story, I constantly found myself immersed in Brooklyn’s version of events. One of the reasons why Brooklyn’s truth is so compelling is the fair handed way in which Perlin delivers it. There are no villains, even Bo’s ex-wife, Ruth, who puts the couple through hell, is more mad than bad. In fact much of the humour in the novel comes from the emails that Ruth sends to Bo.
Burnt Promises is a novel that offers up a woman’s life for inspection and, through our relationship with Brooklyn, I think most readers will be forced to face truths about their own lives. It might not always be pretty but Burnt Promises is a reflection of reality for a lot of women trying to find their place in a so called modern world.