Review: The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy
Readers who have passed even a cursory glance over the big Summer Reading Lists for 2017 will have come across The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy. It is one of those books fortunate enough to have sent forth ripples of anticipation ahead of its arrival.
The particular ripple which hit my shore heralded a mystery filled with twists and surprises. I’d like to lower your expectations on that score. There is no great mystery, not unless you are reading from under cover of a blindfold or extreme naivety. Mind you, with only a geographical shift and minor adjustments to circumstance, I have lived this story. I have been one of the Chase sisters and I have been loved, fiercely, by the other. That might explain why I got the plot on Page One and had a lump in my throat by the end of Chapter Two.
Diane Chase is a single mother who doesn’t want a second daughter. Mary Chase, at fourteen years old, doesn’t want a sister. The book opens with Diane and Mary coming to terms with the arrival of this unexpected baby girl.
‘Let’s call her Hannah.’ And with those words, it was as if Mary had slashed the palm of her hand and offered her blood as an oath.
Four uneasy years later, Diane is killed in a car crash leaving Mary in loco parentis, in debt and in dire straits. As Mary explains to Hannah, the orphaned Chase girls are like princesses from a fairytale and, like all decent fairytale heroines before them, they must embark on a long and treacherous voyage. There’s a witch to be out-foxed, a swamp to be traversed and even the heart of a handsome prince to be claimed.
So begins an epic road trip across America, from the beaches of the East coast, all the way to a Pacific sunset. Mary has only two assets at her disposal: her ferocious beauty and an infallible instinct for reading people. These she uses, without a qualm, to protect and provide for Hannah.
Men are unable to resist Mary Chase, they ‘loved her, madly.’ She could settle down with any, unnamed, number of them but Mary can’t stay still. She takes her pleasure, and anything else she can get, from passing strangers and moves on.
‘Later that night, he double pierced Mary’s ear with a sewing needle, then slipped his grandmother’s ruby stud into the hole. Mary felt a trickle of blood run from the lobe down her neck. Without hesitation, he licked it clean, sliding his tongue up from her collarbone, then wrapping his mouth gently around her tender and swollen earlobe. Three days later, the Chase girls were gone. They didn’t leave a note. And for years, the taste of Mary’s blood would come to the boy unbidden, and he’d feel his mouth go wet; he’d feel an ache in his groin. And he’d remember the taste of Mary Chase.’
Mary can’t stop moving for fear that trouble will catch up with her. Her notion of home is a person, not a place.
‘It drained her, staying in a place, as if roots drew life from her rather than gave it.’
She takes comfort in motion, ‘basking in the infinitude of being nowhere.’ She is soothed by the rush of a speeding car, is glad to be in control, at least, of a great metal beast. She drives and drives until her mind empties and fills up again ‘with something quiet and dark.’
Mary Chase is calculating and courageous but not necessarily wise. She is one of life’s gamblers, luxuriating in uncertainty. Mary Chase is amoral; she has only one fixed principle in her life, and that is love. The author treats this imperfect heroine with a spirit of such generosity, she made me feel like a better person.
It sucked me in, this book, until I felt like an invisible passenger riding in the back seat of Mary’s car. I leaned forward, to see where we were going, and shook my head and grinned when I saw that we had arrived, ‘the way you do when a story ends up just as it should.’
In A Moveable Feast,Hemingway describes how he learned to omit parts of the story. ‘You could omit anything,’ he said, ‘if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.’
Omission, not mystery, is the technique which Healy has mastered and used to magnificent effect in The Sisters Chase.
Had Healy persisted in omission, had she resisted the urge to fill in all the blanks, I might have might have been unable to resist the urge to use the word Great. As it stands, in this European reader’s humble opinion, The Sisters Chase would sit comfortably on a shelf labelled Very, Very Good American Novels.
This is a fine book and one I heartily wish I could have written myself.