Chasing Windmills (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)

I’ve been enjoying the books I’ve read so far by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and - after reading some reviews - added a few more to my wish-list earlier in the year. I was given them for my birthday, and have just finished reading one of them.

‘Chasing Windmills’ is told from the perspective of two very different young people, both of whom are spending hours each evening travelling around on the underground in their city (in the United States). We meet Sebastian first. He’s seventeen, and has been brought up by a very controlling father. He was homeschooled in a formal and rigid way, and never allowed to make any friends.

He wasn’t even allowed out of their apartment, until a doctor prescribed fresh air and exercise after Sebastian kept getting ill. He’s never seen a film, never read a novel, never eaten fast food. Despite everything, he’s a likeable and intelligent young man. He’s made a friend, too: the middle-aged Delilah who lives in his apartment block and gives him sound and helpful advice.

Maria, who is a few years older, lives with an equally controlling (and abusive) boyfriend, Carl. She fell in love with him when she was fifteen, but her home life wasn’t happy. They now have two small children. Maria recently lost her job but she hasn’t told Carl yet; so when she’s supposed to be working a night shift, she, too, rides around on the city subway system.

Inevitably, Sebastian and Maria come in contact although neither is sure what to do about it. We realise, since they tell the story in alternating chapters, that both are feeling trapped and helpless, and are taking this step towards independence. There’s tension right from the start: will Sebastian’s father or Carl find out what’s going on?

The story is a bit slow-moving in the early chapters, as we get to know these two young people. Their backgrounds are gradually unfurled through their thoughts, and the discussions with those who care for them: Delilah for Sebastian, and Maria’s sister Stella. Catherine Ryan Hyde builds solid and believable characters; there was no danger of confusing any of the people concerned, or forgetting who was whom. By the time I was about a quarter of the way through, I was liking it very much, and by half-way through I could barely put it down.

There’s a theme running through the book of a doomed romance: there are many references to the film West Side Story and also the play Romeo and Juliet on which it was based. It’s a clue that Sebastian and Maria aren’t likely to have a long-term relationship; I hoped the novel wasn’t going to be a tragedy. There are also themes of deceit and honesty, and of the kind of pseudo love that attempts to control another person. It’s a powerful story, well crafted and very readable.

Without giving spoilers, the ending - with plenty of drama - was the right one, if not that one I’d have chosen myself. I felt it was overall a positive novel, even though I was at first a bit disturbed that homeschooling is portrayed in such a negative light.

The story was thought-provoking and, in places, moving. It's one that would, I think, give hope to anyone trapped in a bullying relationship of any kind, whether with a parent or a partner.

Recommended for those who like hard-hitting women’s fiction.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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