“Some stories are crafted as if by blueprint, built line by line and brick by brick. There are stories born of angst, wrung painfully from an author's mind onto pages that, in the end, are more of bandage than paper. Then there are those stories that seek the writer, drifting through time and space like thistle seed until they find fertile ground on which to land and take root. This is one such story. It found me during my second week in Italy.” Excerpt from The Last Promise We went to Italy because my wife, Keri, and I had reached a point in our lives where comfort and predictability had become suffocating to our souls. At the same time, our family was growing up, and it was time for an experience that we could all share before breaking off into our own lives. At these times it's best to take our lives by the corners and shake them. Leaving America was not easy. Italy was a big shake.
My wife and I found a cottage in the Chianti countryside a few kilometers outside of Italy's cultural heart the city of Florence and I began considering ideas for my next book. It seems peculiar to me now, but I had no intention of writing anything set in Italy. In fact, after the first several months in the country, I was even less inclined to do so since it seemed to me that every American in Florence wanted to write about Italy. Then something happened.
I was near the grounds of the Roman Forum when I came upon the ruins of the temple of Vesta. I learned from my guidebook that Vesta was the goddess of hearth and home and an important deity to the ancient Romans. The keepers of the temple were the Vestal Virgins, a small group of women chosen to be priestesses to Vesta. The Vestal Virgins were considered holy and given great wealth, power and honor, but there was a price. The Vestals were required to take three vows; the first was allegiance to the Goddess Vesta, the second was to keep the Temple's flame (symbolic of Rome's families) burning at all times. The third and last promise was that they would, for the sake of Rome's families, forsake love, taking vows of chastity. If a Vestal was to break this final vow, punishment was severe. First, the Vestal's lover would be whipped to death. Then the Vestal would be bound in burial linens, given a loaf of bread and an oil lamp, and taken to the field of the damned where she was buried alive.
Eighteen of the Vestals suffered this fate. In spite of the threat of losing honor, power, wealth and even their lives, these women still chose to risk love. This dramatic illustration of the powerful conflict between the human need for love and the commitment to God and family intrigued me. I wanted to write about it.
With the premise for the novel in mind, the setting for my story presented itself a few weeks later when I met a young American woman lounging by the pool at a Chianti country club. I learned that she had, in America, married a wealthy, handsome Italian man, had a child, then, after several years, followed him from her home in the States back to his family's beautiful villa in Tuscany. While in America, he had been romantic and caring and had treated her as an equal, but once back in Italy he seemed to change. As time passed she saw less of him. Then his attitude toward women seemed to change, as well. One day he announced, “It is not right that I help with the child or the home. It is your job. You need to serve me. That is how it is here.” Hoping to keep their marriage alive, for their child's sake, she tried fitting into the new paradigm, but found herself desperately unhappy. When she told her husband that she wanted a divorce so she could go back home to America, her husband told her that he would not allow her to take their child with her. Italian law prevented her from taking her child out of the country without her husband's permission. She had a choice, live a loveless life with her child or find love and break her family apart. Thousands of years later here was a modern woman facing the same dilemma that the Vestal Virgins faced in ancient Rome. Using her real life dilemma as my story's setting, I wondered what would happen if she, deprived of love, fell in love with somebody else. What would she do? When I began to write my novel, The Last Promise, I set out to answer that question.
Richard Paul Evans was an advertising executive in Utah when he wrote his first book, The Christmas Box, which went on to become a number one bestseller. The Last Promise (Dutton, $22.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0525946969), which goes on sale November 11, is his seventh novel.