Halfway House by Katharine Noel
I actually finished reading this in late October—you know, back when I was still looking forward to spending November focusing on NaNo. AYKB, between TC stuff and offline chaos, that did not happen, and this post kept getting shuffled to the bottom of my to-do list. And now it’s the end of the year, and it’s still there, the last thing needing to be scratched off before 2008 ends.
So… here we go. I guess it’s somehow fitting that it’s taken me so long to get around to writing this review, given how long it took me to read the book. Looking back, I see I knocked a couple books off quite quickly right after I turned in the final draft of my thesis, but this one took me weeks to get through. I’m not really sure why; it wasn’t that the book was a slog or difficult or anything like that. For whatever reason, I just seemed content to read a single chapter at a time. That kind of a reading approach doesn’t always work out, of course; with a lot of books you’d end up having to flip back to refresh your memory each time because you couldn’t remember what happened up to your bookmark. But Halfway House had the stickiness necessary to be a satisfying slow read; whenever I picked it up, I didn’t have any problem continuing on as if I had just put it down.
Halfway House is Katharine Noel’s debut novel. Essentially it is the story of what happens to an “ordinary” family (mother/father/daughter/son) after the daughter develops a mental illness (bipolar disorder). I say “ordinary,” because I didn’t find them that ordinary to begin with: Pieter, the father/husband, is a professional musician and Jordana, the mother/wife, is the daughter of his friend/mentor. They first meet when she is a child and he is dating someone else; she crushes on him and they end up together, so she’s like 15 years younger than him. The kids (Angie & Luke) are exceptional athletes (swimmers), especially Angie, and she is also a brilliant student. There’s an expectation that she, at least, will attend an Ivy League school. (And… if you think $35k for a year‘s tuition is reasonable, you’re not ordinary. That is all.)
So, it’s very much about how easily a seemingly perfect family unit can fall apart when one thing (albeit a big thing) changes. At first, they try to go along as before, but it eventually becomes clear that—even if the right combination of meds is found—Angie is not going to simply recover and resume her before-life where she left off. Pieter and Jordana’s marriage falters and they separate. Luke ends up going to school in the Midwest, where he meets an actual ordinary girl ;-). In reality, of course, the cracks were already there; Angie’s break just widened them.
There was a lot packed into this book; maybe not all of it needed to be there, but I didn’t mind it. The writing is great; the descriptions are vivid and the characters do seem authentic. It felt like a world that had been percolating in someone’s mind for a long time. (My first thought was “MFA thesis” and after doing my usual post-read investigation, I think that might be right.) Still… I think one of the reasons I didn’t feel an urge to read this book faster is that I never really found myself attaching to any of the characters. Everything seemed to be taking place at arm’s length; there was a distance between reader and characters, rather than the immediacy one tends to expect with fiction. It felt like we (author and readers) were analyzing the characters rather than engaging with them. But maybe this is just a reflection of New Englander reticence?