"As the night passes, the starless winter sky over the small Main Line township of Radnor turns to an inky, fathomless black. The roads become empty, drained of life. Even the highway on the outskirts of town is soundless…. And when it seems that it can't get any darker or quieter, the first bits of sunlight break on the horizon. The light comes slowly at first, then more quickly. You know what's coming next, but you don't know all of it."
Somewhere in the middle of this novel lies this wonderful paragraph that subtly describes what STRANGE BUT TRUE is really about. This book defies the rules, making it a challenge to fit it neatly into a genre --- it's part mystery, part tragedy, part comedy, and part simple slice of life. Well, not simple, really. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing at all.
Ronnie Chase died the night of his senior prom. His mom has never gotten over it, allowing herself to be overtaken by a meanness of spirit that drives his father into the arms of another woman and his older brother, Philip, into a new life in Manhattan. Five years later, Philip has returned home to convalesce, unable to survive in his fourth floor walkup with a full cast on his leg. In the middle of a snowy, bitter night back in Radnor, a call comes from Ronnie's high school sweetheart, Melissa Moody, a young woman still carrying the scars of the accident that claimed her boyfriend's life. She has a shocking revelation to share, and Philip and his mom react each in their own disparate ways. What follows is a gradual unfolding of a bizarre set of circumstances and the way each of the characters deals with its effect on their lives.
Searles develops one mystery and then starts teasing you with another, building it on top of the last. He has a unique style that dishes out a hearty helping of details, giving even the most insignificant bit player a healthy dose of dimension, yet somehow does not overburden the story. He slowly --- almost infuriatingly so --- feeds the tale to the reader; infuriating only in that the writing is too good to merely skim through to get to the action. It is at once a book of high drama followed by near maddening inaction; rampant emotion followed by an almost exasperating lethargy; searing intrigue followed by a falsely soothing calm before the next storm --- a storm you know is coming. But you have no inkling of the strength of it. Woven together are several lives in a small Pennsylvania town, their interactions causing varying degrees of harm and hope. Some merely cross paths, doing a smattering of damage to one another. But no one comes out unscathed in this darkly humorous novel full of human frailties.
In my reading of STRANGE BUT TRUE, I must have popped off an "Aha" at least five times --- normally a sure five-star Amazon.com rating, and it would have this time but for the ending, which seemed to fall short of Searles's daring excellence throughout the rest of the book. It seemed just a bit too tidy after a story of such startling depth.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011
Strange But True