This reading group guide forPromise Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Richard Paul Evans. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For Beth, 1989 was a year marked by tragedy. Her life was falling apart: her six-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was suffering from an unidentifiable illness; her marriage transformed from a seemingly happy and loving relationship to one full of betrayal and pain; her job was increasingly at risk; and she had lost any ability to trust, to hope, or to believe in herself. Then, on Christmas Day, Beth meets Matthew—a strikingly handsome, mysterious stranger who completely changes her life. He rescues her from emotional and financial ruin, but not even he can save her from heartbreak when she's forced to make a decision that will change both their lives forever.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. This story is framed by passages in Beth’s diary, which we sometimes read directly and sometimes experience as a more traditional first-person narrative. We start in the present on Christmas Eve, moving backward in time to 1989, and then finally return to the present. Did you find this structure effective? Why or why not?
2. Marc claims that Beth is the only woman he’s ever loved, yet he’s cheated on her for many years. Do you believe he really loves Beth? Do you think he ever loved her? What do you think his true motives are for finally confessing to Beth?
3. Though we later learn that Matthew’s knowledge about Charlotte’s mysterious medical problems comes from the future rather than “just knowing,” it’s Beth’s trust in him that saves Charlotte’s life. Have you ever had a strong feeling or intuition about something? What did you do and what was the result?
4. The characters in this novel experience many kinds of complicated love for one another. Identify and classify the different relationships in Promise Me, and discuss the complexities and benefits of each.
5. If Matthew hadn’t confessed the truth, it’s likely Beth would never have discovered that he is her future son-in-law. When did you first suspect that Matthew might be from the future? Identify the clues the author gives along the way.
6. In Promise Me Beth experiences a number of hardships and heartbreaks. She believes that she has brought these on herself, because she allowed herself to trust people. How can trust get you into trouble? What do you give up if you won’t, or can’t, trust others?
7. Roxanne thinks Beth is a fool for sending Matthew away after he gives her a two million dollar check—the winnings from the bet he placed using her home equity loan. While it doesn’t change the fact that he stole, Roxanne notes that he could have easily skipped town with the winnings. What if he’d lost? Do you think the ends justify the means? What do you think of Beth’s decision to put him down as a co-signer on the loan after knowing him for such a short time?
8. Matthew’s revelation—that he is in fact Charlotte’s future husband—is a stunner. But in Beth’s timeline, Charlotte is still a child. She’ll never be hurt if Matthew chooses to stay with her mother instead of returning to his own present to be with her. So why doesn’t Beth ask him to stay? What would you do?
9. The theme of living each day to its fullest is prevalent in this story, with several characters suffering from fatal illnesses or otherwise having limited time. Describe some of the things Beth and Matthew do with their precious ten months. What would you do if you had only ten months with someone you loved and money was no object? If you suddenly had only a limited time left with someone you loved, would you wish you’d never met them at all rather than suffer the pain of losing them? Why or why not?
10. Beth suggests that if she’d known Marc would cheat on her, she’d never have married him. But Matthew argues she would have, because otherwise she wouldn’t have had Charlotte. Every choice we make in life has consequences. If you could relive your life knowing what you know now, what would you do differently? What wouldn’t you change?
11. At one point, Beth and Matthew discuss what would happen if they ran into his parents, or his ten-year-old self, in Capri. Would you want to see yourself as a child if you could? What, if anything, would you say?
12. Matthew seems like the perfect guy—an angel sent to save Beth from a life of loneliness. However, in the end, he isn’t the guy for Beth, and he leaves her. Beth writes in her diary, “I have wondered if those who say ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ have ever lost their loved.” (p. 286) How do you feel about this observation? Do you think Beth would ultimately agree or disagree that it’s better to have loved and lost? What does Matthew do for Beth besides give her another lost love to grieve?
13. The author leads Matthew—and us—to believe that Matthew will return to 2008 only to lose Charlotte. We don’t even know if he’ll remember his extraordinary journey to the past. How did you feel about the ending? Were you satisfied? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Experts estimate that there are more than two million undiagnosed sufferers of Celiac disease in the United States alone. Get some insight into the challenges Beth and Charlotte face by examining your current eating habits and noting what foods you’d have to give up. Try making some gluten-free snacks to share with your bookclub. You can find recipes and more information on the Celiac Sprue Association’s website: www.csaceliacs.org.
2. At one point, Beth and Matthew make a kind of “Bucket List.” What’s on Beth’s list? What’s on yours? Make a list of at least ten things you want to do before you die and take turns reading them out loud to your book club. Together, make a pledge to do at least one of these things in the next year.
3. Matthew goes back in time nineteen years to 1989. Plan a “Bring Back the ‘80s” party with your fellow book club members, including popular party snacks, games, movies, and music from 1989. See if you feel transported back to a different decade, as Beth did when Matthew held her in the final pages of the novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH RICHARD PAUL EVANS
Promise Me is your sixteenth novel. Since your very first success, The Christmas Box, each of your novels have been New York Times bestsellers. What is the secret to your success and longevity in a business as competitive as publishing?
My readers, of course. I have remarkable fans. Eight years ago when a bookstore chain decided to ban one of my books, three of my fans were so upset that they were actually removed from the offending store by the police. They have stuck with me through thick and thin. I adore them.
The other secret isn’t much of a secret. It’s commitment. Shortly after the success of my first book, I had the pleasure and privilege of having lunch with an author I greatly admire, Mary Higgins Clark. As a newcomer to the field, I asked Mary what her secret was to having such a long and distinguished career. I’ll never forget her response: “I respect my readers enough that I try to make each new book my best one yet.” I’ve tried to follow her advice ever since.
Promise Me uses the literary technique of magical realism. Is this something you’ve done before?
I’ve used magical realism in two of my novels, The Christmas Box and The Gift, both of which were very popular. On a personal level, I enjoy reading fantasy, so using magical realism not only makes for a satisfying and interesting read, but is fun to write as well.
One of the characters in Promise Me suffers from Celiac disease. Is this something you know about first hand?
We should put a “spoiler alert” before that question! My publisher referred to Promise Me as the world’s first “Gluten Free” novel. Fortunately, I have no personal experience with the disease. However, I had a close friend who was allergic to gluten, and I was surprised at how much it changed her life. So, I have a fairly good idea of just how debilitating the disease can be. It worked well in Promise Me because it is so difficult to diagnose.
You often describe food and meals in your books. Is there a reason for this?
One of the few universal things all humans have in common and, hopefully, do every day, is eat. It’s not only a defining aspect of our lives but of our culture as well. To understand this better, just compare the laborious, slow Italian cuisine to America’s fast food culture. To butcher a phrase, we are—culturally—what we eat. Therefore, by putting food in a book, we better understand the character and the setting.
We also understand circumstances differently as well. Whether someone is sitting down to an elegant meal or a thin bowl of gruel with a crust of bread, we put ourselves in the position of the character and feel their circumstances with real understanding. In The Christmas Box one of the protagonists drinks peppermint tea.In The Sunflower they eat piranha for one of their meals. Both tell you more about their circumstance and character than you could write in pages.
In Promise Me, your main characters take a fantastic European vacation. Have you traveled yourself over the past year?
My wife, Keri, just recently started taking groups to Italy, and last summer I had the time to accompany her as I was finishing Promise Me. Even though we had lived in Italy for nearly two years, I had never been to the island of Capri. I so completely fell in love with the island that I decided to make it a key place in my book. I can’t imagine a more romantic spot anywhere in the world.
In so many of your novels there is a poignant Christmas scene that becomes the turning point of the story. Why have you chosen that day to climax your stories?
Call it superstition, but I have made a reference to Christmas in every novel since my first, The Christmas Box. I think it’s a way for me to continue to connect to the magic that opened the door to success for me in the first place. I’ve heard of other authors and filmmakers who do the same thing, so it doesn’t surprise me. Maybe it’s connection, maybe it’s security, or maybe it’s just an inside joke for ourselves. Having said this, I admit that I love everything about Christmas: the meaning, the love, the sights, the sounds—even the smells. As I wrote in The Christmas Box: the smells of Christmas are the smells of childhood. I couldn’t agree more.