Promises To Keep
by Kathryn Shay, contemporary (2002)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-18574-5


I got this book way back in late July. Will you believe me if I say that I finally close this book with a huge sigh of relief only at the tail end of September?

Kathryn Shay's big time debut, Promises To Keep is a very ambitious story, attempting to out-tackle 21 Jump Street and Boston Public in one sumo smash from the author, and it is this ambitiousness that finally causes this 800-pound sumo biggie to crash face-first, bum-up on the ground.

Catalyzed by all those high school shootings and fuelled by September 11, Joe Stonehouse and his special action squad infiltrate the most problematic high schools to weed out any potential trouble at the roots. The latest stint have he posing as a counselor while his colleague Luke Ludzecky poses as a high school kid (he looks 19) in Fairholm High. The former doesn't predict his falling for the principal Suzanna Quinn while the latter for schoolteacher Kelsey Cunningham. In the meantime, there is a plot to off Mrs Quinn (she's a widow) and her son.

To think I thought my school days were boring.

Promises To Keep is decent read, actually. But at the same time, characterization is subpar, and the plot becomes more and more ridiculous as the story progresses. Let's start with the women. Kathryn Shay seems to believe that all you need to do to give a woman "character" is to inflict her with lots of Daddy issues. How predictable and dull. For a 46-year old man, Joe's commitment phobia and his tendency to snarl, growl, and bare his teeth at everyone and everything makes him look like an immature brat.

The best character is Luke. Seriously, he deserves a better story. A good-natured family man with pain and hurt that only make him stronger, this twentysomething man can give Joe lessons in emotional maturity. Kelsey is a tired character, her flaws becoming even more apparent when paired with Luke, and she can't come to life at all. Then again, I can't get into Joe and Suzanna's romance either. Suzanna's the all-patience, super trooper teacher, and the only reason why I don't confuse her with Robin Williams and stand on my table calling forlornly, "Captain oh Captain" (or something, it's been a while since I caught Dead Poets Society) is because she comes with predictable instant-Ramen Daddy issues. Joe, well, he's a silly old stubborn alpha-mule, but the thing is, jeez, man, he's 46. Grow up, man! It's about time.

Joe also has Daddy issues, and so does Luke, come to think of it. See a trend forming? Memo to Ms Shay: Daddy issues aren't the same thing as character development.

This book suffers from Brockmannitis. It tries to tackle so many characters while giving them only cursory characterization, puts in some implausible action plot, calls itself "mainstream novel", and then claps itself in the back for tackling "daring issues". But it's not daring when it uses all the clichés related to high school: the popular kid who kills himself because he is so so hurt inside, the sensitive nerd, the popular girl who isn't as bad as she actually is, the schoolteacher who goes beyond the way out of duty, the bullies, sigh. One could argue that high school kids are walking clichés even in real life, but that doesn't mean that high school clichés are in any way entertaining. Not when it's done in a transparent way like this book anyway.

Oh, and this book also tends to get very heavy-handed at times with the preaching. Joe is the Exposition Daddy here, as he narrates epic speeches to Suzanna who just nods and nods. I get the message, Ms Shay: high school sucks, teachers and outcasts need love too, but can we get on with the story now? Thank you.

While I wouldn't be surprised if Ms Shay creates a High School Navy SEAL franchise out of Joe Wonderblockhead's team, I can always hope that she overcomes the Brockmannitis, right? The dialogues are there, the set-up, and now all we need is stronger characterization and less by-the-book plotting.

Rating: 76


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