Reading guide for Strange But True by John Searles

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Strange But True

by John Searles

Strange But True
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2004, 256 pages
    Jun 2005, 366 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


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.

Discussion Topics

  1. 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?

  2. 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 or logical proof, or some balance of the two? Which do you prefer?

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. Consider the parenting approaches illustrated by the Moodys and the Chases. Which tactics more closely resemble your own upbringing?

  10. 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?

  11. 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?
  12. 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?

  13. 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?

  14. What does Philip learn about himself while working with the restaurant's many immigrants? What bridge does this experience create for him?

  15. 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?

  16. 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?

  17. The image of birds appears consistently throughout the novel. What do they represent? Discuss the significance of the book's closing line.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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