Books

'The Sisters Chase' Gives Us a Protagonist Worth Taking the Journey With

Sarah Healy's The Sisters Chase introduces a flawed heroine for the ages in its breezy, affecting narrative.


The Sisters Chase

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 304 pages
Author: Sarah Healy
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06
Amazon

The Sisters Chase is one of the few books I’ve read that I actually wished were much, much longer. Clocking in at under 300 pages, The Sisters Chase whirls breathlessly through the story of Mary and Hannah Chase (nicknamed Bunny), a pair of sisters left to fend for themselves in the wake of their mother’s death.

Tracing their years-long journey along America's East Coast and across the country as they search for a place to settle, Sarah Healy’s new novel deftly captures a variety of locales and moods, from the New Jersey beachfront motel where the girls were born, to the swamps of Florida, where Mary takes them on a lark after their departure. Placing their constant roving in the context of storybook Princess tales and quests, the 18-year-old Mary determinedly cares for four-year-old Bunny to the best of her ability, even as she breaks promise after promise of stability and stasis.

Admittedly, it’s hard to resist comparing every recent charismatic and manipulative female protagonist to Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne (Fates and Furies’ Mathilde Satterwhite is another such example). Mary Chase, the compelling and enigmatic central figure of The Sisters Chase, has many of the qualities that made Amy (and Mathilde) such a memorable character -- calculating and cold, yet able to perfectly perform soft, pliant femininity; and above all, willing to lie, steal, cheat, and seduce her way into getting what she wants.

Yet the key difference that sets Mary apart from women like Amy and Mathilde is the purely altruistic core to nearly all of her actions: with one exception, every cruel move and betrayal Mary makes is to provide for and protect Bunny. The aforementioned exception is a simple and understandable one: Mary’s winding path with Bunny towards security and safety leads, at one point, back to the only man she ever loved, the heir to a Kennedy-esque clan she’d fallen for years prior. After all, for most of the story Mary is in her late teens and very early 20s, and despite her successful attempts at playing the role of a grown, sophisticated adult, she still holds dear the kind of grand romance found only in the fantastical stories she tells Bunny. Once a relationship fails to resume the way Mary hopes it will, her return to a purely transactional approach to love and intimacy is genuinely affecting. We as readers know, at this point, that she is capable of much deeper, honest, vulnerable feelings -- another contrast to Amy and Mathilde.

I mention the novel’s length because its more dramatic aspects could have been drawn out longer to maintain tension. A key move of Mary’s early in the novel is a sexual blackmailing scheme to provide her and her sister the cash necessary to set out on their own, yet her comeuppance comes far too quickly. In a longer story, perhaps, Mary’s sins would have bubbled up from beneath the surface of her life later in the narrative, perhaps around the time of the inevitable plot twist (which I won’t spoil here), leading to far greater catharsis. Instead, the proverbial hammers fall in a more measured way over the course of the novel, which undercuts a large part of the danger and suspense Mary’s furtive and often illicit actions cause.

Additionally, the mystery aspect of The Sisters Chase concerning the identity of Mary’s father, who stuck around long enough to seduce her mother and then left, is a little half-baked. In contrast to the bigger, bang-boom reveals of The Sisters Chase, the question of Mary’s father would have benefitted from more foreshadowing dotted quietly throughout the plot to stir up the reader’s interest and investment in the answer.

On a formal level, I have to wonder about the decision to frame the novel with imaginary letters from Bunny to Mary, as the bulk of the story takes place in the third person and centers on Mary. We only get to see Bunny herself through Mary’s eyes and through these epistolary bookends, which is not exactly satisfying. Mary Chase is entirely vivid and captivating, both in the world of The Sisters Chase and to the reader following her stories, yet Bunny only gets to speak for herself in these rather extraneous missives that amount to ten or so pages out of the whole book.

Ultimately, though, Mary herself, part sinner and part saint, makes The Sisters Chase worth the read, and worth the chase alongside the titular sisters.

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