The Things We Promise

J. C. Burke

The Things We Promise
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The Things We Promise

J. C. 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.


Gemma and her friends are looking forward to their school formal; as they pore over dresses in magazines Gemma is eagerly awaiting a visit from her much-loved older brother Billy, a New-York based make up artist who will be visiting for the event. It soon becomes clear that all is not well with Billy though, and that Gemma isn’t being told everything. As she becomes increasingly aware of her brother’s situation her worries shift from hairstyles and hemlines to much more grave concerns about her family.

Set in the early nineties, this novel discusses the heartbreaking impact of the AIDS epidemic. Some of Gemma’s friendships become fraught and others are formed as she navigates her life and prioritises her family during this incredibly difficult time. She learns first-hand about the effects of ill-informed attitudes and fights prejudice and fears as they spill over into her life. This is a relevant and well-executed novel about family, friendships, love and grief.

Kim Gruschow is the Children’s Book Buyer at Readings St Kilda.

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