This is not a love story. This is a tale about desperation.
That is how Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Chasing Windmills should be marketed. Instead, it’s depicted as a love story similar to West Side Story.
There are no gangs. There are no Puerto Ricans. No one breaks out into song and dance. But it does take place in New York City. Also, West Side Story is one of the main character’s favorite movies. Still, that’s not enough to liken the book to the famous play.
Chapters alternate between the first-person perspectives of Sebastian Mudnt and Maria Arquette. Both of them are trapped in unhappy lives.
Sebastian lives with his controlling father who doesn’t allow him out of the house except to go running each day, and only because a doctor said it would cure his illness. Even though Sebastian is forbidden to do things that normal 17-year-old boys are able to do, such as have friends and watch movies, he secretly befriends an old woman who lives in his apartment complex. She gives him advice, introduces him to movies and buys him junk food.
Maria lives with her abusive boyfriend. She has two children with him and has been his girlfriend since she was 15 years old. She doesn’t love her boyfriend anymore but feels like she can’t leave him for the children’s sake.
Sebastian and Maria meet on a subway late at night. Sebastian sneaks out of his apartment once his father zonks out with a sleeping pill. Maria hasn’t had the courage to tell her boyfriend that she’s lost her job, so she rides the subway during the time that would be covered by her shift.
The attraction is instantaneous and mutual. Within a few meetings they are proclaiming their affection for one another and making plans to run away together.
Chasing Windmills could have been an intimate look into domestic abuse, but it remains superficial instead of delving into the heart of the matter. The emotional and physical consequences were described only half-heartedly instead of investigating how far abuse affects the psyche. Escape was far too easy for Sebastian and Maria, cheapening the gravity of their situation.
Both Sebastian and Maria conveniently have acquaintances that go well out of their way to help the couple escape. The parallel between Maria’s son and Sebastian also seems to be more of a gimmick than anything poignant.
The ending wraps up rather quickly, considering everything that goes on. It seems even more rushed because it carries the trends of convenience and gimmick that make this story unlikely and unbelievable.
Instead of diving into another important issue in society (child custody), Hyde makes quick explanations and moves on. For one thing, regardless of whether the father beats the mother or not, the mother cannot simply move across the country with her children as Maria does, or a nasty custody battle would ensue. She can’t prove that he’s abusive but he can prove that she took the kids away without his permission.
Domestic abuse and the ensuing custody battle should be the heart and soul of this book, but they are not. They remain half-hearted attempts, just as the romance fails to feel romantic.
Chasing Windmills is not Catherine Ryan Hyde’s best piece of work as it fails to follow its themes through to their (most likely messy) conclusions.