John Searles

"Strange But True"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 22, 2004)

"How could a girl who once seemed so normal wind up as this damaged young woman living in this creepy house, surrounded by memories of her dead boyfriend and believing that the baby inside her is his? Yes, the accident was terrible. Yes, she obviously loved Ronnie. But it has been nearly five years—long enough for most anyone to move on."

Strange But True by John Searles

Melissa Moody has been grieving for five years, ever since a prom night accident in Radnor, Pennsylvania, killed Ronnie Chase, the only person she has ever loved. Badly scarred, both physically and emotionally, Melissa has escaped from her strict parents and twin sister and now lives in a tiny shack on the property of Bill and Gail Erwin, where she spends her time dreaming of Ronnie Chase. Ronnie's mother, like Melissa, is also devastated by the accident, which led to the breakup of her marriage, her precipitous weight gain, and the loss of her job. Living alone since her older son Philip has moved to New York City, Charlene Chase wants someone to pay for this accident which deprived her of her favorite son, and everyone is a target for her wrath.

Five years after the accident, Ronnie's brother Philip has returned to Radnor to recuperate from serious injuries received in a bizarre accident in which he fell from the fire escape of his New York apartment. His mother, however, is so focused on the past that she has little interest in him, his injuries, or anything about his life. Suddenly, Charlene and Philip receive a middle-of-the-night phone call from Melissa Moody, whom neither of them has seen in five years, and she wants to come to their house immediately. At two a.m., she arrives, nine months pregnant, announcing to Charlene and Philip that she is carrying Philip's baby, insistent that in the five years since the accident she has had no other lovers.

Alternating the time scheme from the present to five years previously and back, author John Searles establishes the relationship between Ronnie and Melissa, their activities on the night of the prom, and the relationship each has with his/her parents. At the same time, he reveals through intimate, homely details the lives that Ronnie's mother and Melissa are leading in the present--their lack of hygiene, their squalid living conditions, and their total disinterest in the outside world. Melissa has old photographs of Ronnie taped to the dashboard of her trash-filled car and memorabilia from the prom scattered all around her untidy house. Charlene has turned Ronnie's room into a shrine. Philip, the living son, is ignored, though he lives an equally hopeless life. Always an outsider who has lived in the shadow of his much more gregarious younger brother, he is a young, gay man seeking some sort of connection to the world through a constant parade of one-night stands. "If [Philip's] mother's personality had exploded in the aftermath of Ronnie's death, Philip's had imploded."

The author, who sometimes addresses the reader directly, uses a number of obvious symbols to connect details and pieces of the narrative as the mystery of Melissa's baby is explored. At one point, for example, Charlene, hating Melissa but wanting to believe that somehow her baby really is Ronnie's, looks up at the skylight and sees a spider web. This reminds her of the days when she was a librarian reading at children's story hours, and particularly of Charlotte's Web, where Wilbur watches over Charlotte's egg sac after her death "as though he were guarding his own children…For Wilbur, nothing in life was so important as this small round object—nothing else mattered." Since Charlene would love to have a grandchild, the parallels are unmistakable.

As the narrative begins to draw in peripheral characters, the suspense builds and the story becomes more fully developed, incorporating more mysteries than just the question of who is the father of Melissa's baby. Melissa's landlords, Bill and Gail Erwin, Melissa's parents, and Charlene Chase's ex-husband all have secrets which contribute to the increasing sense of menace. When the lives of several characters are endangered, the reader knows the threats are real—crows, a symbol of death, roost in the trees around the cottage where Melissa lives. In spite of the obvious portents, omens, and occasionally, symbols, the author succeeds in creating a real sense of suspense and a fast-paced narrative which keeps the reader rapidly turning the pages.

A very good "popular" novel with a prose style that is efficient and well suited to the subject matter, the novel is a very fast read, full of revelations and bizarre plot twists leading to a final scene which resolves all the questions. Though some readers may feel as if they are watching Jenny Jones, one of Charlene's talk shows, as the dirty laundry of the characters' lives is aired, others will be fascinated by the intimate, personal revelations and feel that they get to know the characters. The dramatic and unexpected changes made by some of them, especially Charlene, as they realize that time does move on, strain credulity, since they come suddenly and with little preamble, but the changes are necessary for the plot, and they provide a sense of resolution in what would otherwise be a very bleak Gothic novel. A good novel for summer reading, this story will appeal to readers looking for one that moves quickly and ties up all the loose ends in a blockbuster conclusion.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews

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About the Author:

John SearlesJohn Searles was born and raised in Monroe, Connecticut. After high school he worked at the Dupont factory close to his hometown. He quickly set his sights on going to college. He earned an undergraduate degree from the state university in Connecticut before moving to New York city to attend New York University on a writing scholarship. After completing his MFA, Searles took a job at Redbook magazine reading fiction submissions for fifty cents a story. He soon moved onto a parttime position in the books department at Cosmopolitan is, where he is now the Deputy Editor overseeing all book coverage for the magazine. His essays, articles and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times and other national magazines and newspapers.

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