Now a Major Motion Picture starring Amy Ryan, Greg Kinnear, and Blythe Danner.
“Sinister and complex.... You’ll race right through it.”—New York Times
After a mysterious fall from his New York City apartment, Philip Chase has moved back home with his mother, Charlene, a bitter woman who has never fully accepted the death of her younger son, Ronnie, five years earlier. Surrounded by memories of the family he no longer has, and trying to forget the reasons he left New York, Philip is in stasis.
But everything changes late one windy February night when Ronnie's high school girlfriend shows up on their doorstep. A sad young woman who still bears the scars of the accident that took Ronnie's life, Melissa is nine months pregnant. The father, she claims, is Ronnie.
Now Philip and his mother must confront not only Melissa's past but also their own: the secrets each has buried and the lies each has told. But not everyone wants the past exposed…. At once a moving story of redemption and a heart-stopping work of suspense, Strange but True “will hold you transfixed” (Salon.com).
About the Author
John Searles is the author of the bestsellers Boy Still Missing and Strange but True. He appears as a book critic on NBC's Today Show, and his essays have been published in the New York Times and Washington Post. He has a master's degree in creative writing from New York University and lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Strange but True
Almost five years after Ronnie Chase's death, the phone rings late one windy February evening. Ronnie's older brother, Philip, is asleep on the foldout sofa, because the family room has served as his bedroom ever since he moved home from New York City. Tangled in the sheets -- among his aluminum crutch, balled-up Kleenexes, TV Guides, three remote controls, and a dog-eared copy of an Anne Sexton biography -- is the cordless phone. Philip's hand fumbles in the dark until he dredges it up by the stubby antenna and presses the On button. "Hello."
A faint, vaguely familiar female voice says, "Philip? Is that you?"
Philip opens his mouth to ask who's calling, then stops when he realizes who it is: Melissa Moody, his brother's high school girlfriend. His mind fills with the single image of her on prom night, blood splattered on the front of her white dress. The memory is enough to make his mouth drop open farther. It is an expression all of the Chases will find themselves wearing on their faces in the coming days, beginning with this very phone call. "Missy?"
"Sorry, it's late. Did I wake you?"
Philip stares up at the antique schoolhouse clock on the wall, which has ticked and ticked and ticked in this rambling old colonial for as long as he can remember, though it never keeps the proper time. Both hands point to midnight, when it's only ten-thirty. Back in New York City, people are just finishing dinner or hailing cabs, but here in the Pennsylvania suburbs, the world goes dead after eight. "I'm wide awake," Philip lies. "It's been a long time. How are you?"
"Okay, I guess."
He hears the steady whoosh of cars speeding by in the background. There is a thinly veiled tremble in her voice that tells him she is anything but okay. "Is something the matter?"
"I need to talk to you and your parents."
If she wants to talk to his father, she'll have to track him down in Florida where he lives with his new wife, Holly -- the woman his mother refers to simply as The Slut. But Philip doesn't bother to explain all that, because there is too much to explain already. "What do you want to talk about?"
Before Missy can answer, his mother's heavy footsteps thunder down the stairs. A moment later, she is standing at the edge of the foldout bed, her worn-out white nightgown pressed obscenely against her doughy body. A few nights before, Philip had caught the second half of About Schmidt on cable. Now he thinks of the scene where Kathy Bates bares all before getting in the hot tub -- this moment easily rivals that one. He shifts his gaze to his mother's curly gray hair springing from her head in all directions like a madwoman -- which is fitting, because to Philip, she is a madwoman. "Who is it?"
"Hold on," Philip says into the phone, then to his mother, "it's Missy."
"Melissa? Ronnie's girlfriend?"
And then there is that expression: her eyebrows arch upward, her mouth drops into an O, as though she too has been spooked by the horrible memory of Melissa's prom dress splattered with Ronnie's blood. "What does she want?"
He gives an exaggerated shrug, then returns his attention to Melissa. "Sorry. My mom just woke up and wanted to know who was on the phone."
"That's okay. How is she anyway?"
All the possible answers to that question rattle around in his mind. There is the everyday fact of his father's absence, his mother's binge eating and ever-increasing weight, her countless pills for blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. But all he says is, "She's fine. So what do you want to talk to us about?"
"I'd rather tell you in person. Can I come by sometime?"
"When would be good?"
Philip thinks of his life in New York, the way he asked perfect strangers over to his camper-size studio in the East Village at all hours. The buzzer was broken, so he had to instruct each one to yell from the street. "How about now?" he hears himself say into the phone.
"Now?" Melissa says.
He waits for her to tell him that it's too late, too dark, too cold. But she takes him by surprise.
"Actually, I've waited too long to tell you this. So now sounds good to me."
After they say good-bye, Philip presses the Off button and tosses the cordless back into the rumpled mess of the bed. The skin beneath his cast itches, and he jams two fingers into the narrow pocket of space just above his kneecap, scratching as hard as he can. His mother stares down at him as an onslaught of questions spill from her mouth like she's regurgitating something and she cannot stop: "Aren't you going to tell me what's going on? I mean, why the hell would that girl call here after all this time? What, she doesn't know how rude it is to phone someone so late? For Christ's sake, aren't you going to answer me?"
Philip quits scratching and pulls his fingers free from the cast, which looks more like an elongated ski boot with an opening for his bruised toes at the bottom, instead of the plain white casts kids used to autograph when he was in high school only a decade ago. "If you shut up for a second, I'll answer you."
His mother crosses her arms in front of her lumpy breasts, making a dramatic show of her silence. The other night he'd watched Inside the Actors Studio and one of those actresses with three names (he could never keep track of who was who) had talked about playing her part for the back row of the theater. That's how his mother has gone through life these last five years, Philip thinks, her every move broad enough for the people in the cheap seats.Strange but True. Copyright © by John Searles. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Funny, mysterious and poignant....John Searles has created a novel to reread and treasure.”
“John Searles’ novel illuminates the intricate dynamics of families with humor, heart, and truth.”
“This is a page-turner with characters you can never forget.”
“A fine, unsettling novel with richly etched characters and a delicious sense of menace.”
“Imaginative and compelling....John Searles has created a novel that is sometimes eerie, sometimes thrilling, and always completely engaging.”
Reading Group Guide
With the keen perception and taut tension that made Boy Still Missing an acclaimed debut, John Searles returns with a haunting tale of family, mystery and miracles.
Strange but True begins just weeks after a bitter homecoming. Injured during a mysterious fall from his New York City apartment, Philip Chase is recuperating at his mother's home in a Pennsylvania suburb. She has never come to terms with the death of her other son, Ronnie, whose memory makes every day an emotional struggle for her and those around her. One night, Ronnie's high school girlfriend, Melissa Moody, arrives on their doorstep with shocking news: she is nine months pregnant, and the father, she claims, is Ronnie. The search for the truth takes Philip and his family on a frightening but healing journey as they confront their fears, regrets, and unforeseen danger.
Charged with the narrative pace of a thriller, surprising moments of dark humor, and quiet observations about love, life and loss, Strange but True is a mesmerizing portrait of a family written by one of the most innovative voices of his generation. We hope that the following questions will enhance your discussion of this provocative novel.
- Philip sees tremendous distinctions between his hometown and New York City. How do these two locales form key aspects of his identity? Where is he more genuinely at home?
- The title phrase, Strange but True, is mentioned in the novel as one character's favorite newspaper column. How did you react when the truth was revealed regarding Melissa's pregnancy? Does society seem to prefer mysterious miracles orlogical proof, or some balance of the two? Which do you prefer?
- Discuss the author's use of timelines in the novel. What is the effect of storytelling through flashbacks, with historical revelations made throughout the narrative?
- John Searles gives us insight into many points of view, including that of Philip's stepmother. How did these merging perspectives shape your opinion of the characters? Discuss the scenes that are re-visited in the novel from another character's point of view, such as the moment when Gail slips the eviction letter under Melissa's door or when Philip calls Charlene to say that he is not coming back.
- What was the root cause of Philip's fall, and what are its repercussions? How does his Manhattan rescue contrast with the one at the end of the novel?
- Among the many relics that Ronnie left behind, the Mercedes looms large. What does it say about him, and what is its role in shaping the plot?
- The scenes leading up to Ronnie's death depict a classic high school relationship, with fantasies of prom night tempered by parental restrictions. How does Philip's experience with love and sexual awakening compare to that of his brother? Do the brothers experience a similar loss of innocence?
- What are your impressions of Ronnie? Does he deserve the heroic memory his loved ones have ascribed to him? Discuss the moment when Charlene reveals the truth about why Ronnie and Chaz set out to date the Moody twins.
- Consider the parenting approaches illustrated by the Moodys and the Chases. Which tactics more closely resemble your own upbringing?
- What caused the novel's villain to bring such violent behavior so daringly close to home? What does this character's presence say about danger and suburbia?
- What role does financial power play in the novel? What does it take for Melissa and Philip to leave home? Are they truly experiencing independent living?
- Discuss Philip's unusual friendship with Donnelly. In what ways do he and his menagerie provide Philip with a new family? Is his new life enough to heal the scars of high school bullying?
- The poetry of Anne Sexton is woven throughout the novel, yet Charlene wants Philip to embrace Robert Frost, whose style and imagery were more traditional than Sexton's. Still, both poets wrote about feelings of despair and loneliness. What does this literary tug-of-war indicate about the Chase household? What does Philip's own poetry reveal? What is the significance of the Anne Sexton passages quoted in the story?
- What does Philip learn about himself while working with the restaurant's many immigrants? What bridge does this experience create for him?
- Discuss the many ironies in place as Melissa gives birth, such as the memories that reveal the father's identity and Charlene's transformed personality. What future do you predict for Melissa's son?
- Losing a loved one is a nearly universal experience. What coping strategies do the Moodys and the Chases use? How would you have endured such a tragedy?
- The image of birds appears consistently throughout the novel. What do they represent? Discuss the significance of the book's closing line.
About the Author
John Searles is the Deputy Editor at Cosmopolitan where he oversees all book excerpts and reviews for the magazine. His essays, articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other national newspapers and magazines. He lives in New York City.