June 2008

Beth Harrington

fiction

Chasing Windmills by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I should preface this review by saying that I have an inexplicable and vastly personal hatred of West Side Story, one which alienates me from the majority of American filmgoers. So maybe I should blame Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer for my feelings about Catherine Ryan Hyde’s (Pay It Forward) latest novel, which bills itself as a retelling of West Side Story. Then again, Chasing Windmills had enough weaknesses apart from its predecessor that this review can be relatively impartial.

A 17-year-old boy and a young woman meet on a train in the middle of the night. They notice each other, a look passes between them, and it is love at first tentative sight. Sebastian -- nicknamed, you guessed it, Tony -- lives a secluded life after the death of his mother, isolated from his peers and the world outside of home by his excessively strict and domineering father. Maria is a twenty-two-year old woman struggling to raise her two children while caught in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Carl. As their feelings for one another deepen, the two lovers gradually take risks to be with one another and challenge the oppressiveness of their respective environments.

Broadly speaking, the two main faults with Chasing Windmills are its predictability and lack of depth. Maybe it is hard to avoid clichés in a rewrite of a rewrite, but even in the moment-to-moment plot details one can guess what is going to happen. In a scene where Sebastian has been kept apart from Maria for several days, he looks up at the moon, pondering whether he will ever see her again, only to hear her call his name a moment later. For advice about his fledgling love affair Sebastian turns to his only (and secretly harbored) friend, a feisty yet loving middle-aged woman, who constantly cajoles him to overcome his fear of the outside world: “Somebody got to teach this poor boy how to live.

The main characters fall into equally hackneyed and poorly fleshed-out stereotypes. Sebastian is a self-described “gentleman” who seems to have never had any romantic thoughts or feelings, or else he is “too polite” to mention them in any detail. When Maria apologizes for and rationalizes Carl’s abuse -- “he has never hit me” until of course, he hits her -- I found myself rolling my eyes. Has this not been done before? Meanwhile, the novel’s antagonists, Carl and Sebastian’s father, are painted as nothing more than bullies struggling to mask their own insecurities, and who fall away at the slightest firm confrontation. I guess I would have found these characters more real and compelling if they had been drawn in less black-and-white paradigms.

Chasing Windmills may have appeal for those who are diehard romantics and people who cannot resist a feel-good story. Perhaps for fans of the original West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet whatever about that plot held them in its sway will work its magic once more. Furthermore, while the chapter-to-chapter interactions between the characters are somewhat predictable, the ultimate destination for the story remains a mystery for anyone who is familiar with the tragic genre to which its antecedents are members. Up until the closing moments of the story, I kept wondering if the author had the chops to go through with the anticipated finale. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that the book’s ending is a bright spot in the novel and one of its few moments of originality. Unfortunately though, it isn’t quite enough to redeem the book as a whole.

Chasing Windmills by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Flying Dolphin Press
ISBN: 978-0-385-52127-7
272 Pages