Name an Oprah-ready domestic catastrophe — teen suicide, addiction, infidelity — and you’ll find a shelf of perfectly competent novels about caring people struggling with it. Chris Bohjalian and Jodi Picoult specialize in family-in-crisis melodramas, and Katharine Noel’s engrossing debut, Halfway House, suggests she is capable of churning out just this kind of top-notch formula fiction. The novel also suggests — with its thoughtful characterizations and graceful prose — that Noel is capable of doing something more interesting.
Pieter Voorster, a cellist, and his wife, Jordana, a counselor at a women’s clinic, live in a bucolic New Hampshire village with their two attractive adolescent children. Luke, 16, is a solid student and accomplished athlete who has always been overshadowed by his older sister, Angie. The strapping blond star of the swim team and an all-around overachiever, Angie stays up late writing extra-credit papers proposing solutions to global warming and homelessness. Manic? No one puts that label on this exuberant high school prodigy until she literally goes off the deep end. At a swim meet, Angie dives headlong into the pool at the start of a boys’ freestyle race, apparently under the illusion that she doesn’t need to breathe.
This may be an overly splashy way to dramatize Angie’s first psychotic break, but Noel deserves immense credit for her precise and delicate description of the grinding years that follow. Angie returns from her first hospital stay puffy and lethargic from drugs, yet with every expectation of returning to her old life — to swimming, dating, college applications. It only gradually becomes clear that the vibrant girl has been permanently replaced by a needy, chronically unstable young woman. Angie’s few, disastrous attempts at normalcy — a miserable weekend at Harvard with an old boyfriend, a strained coffee date with a former classmate — are meticulously detailed and profoundly sad.
Noel also wants to capture the effects of Angie’s illness on the Voorster family, and at this she is less successful. Luke’s transformation from selfish kid brother to Angie’s unswerving champion is beautifully described and convincing. On the other hand, Jordana’s decision to begin an affair shortly after Angie’s first breakdown seems random — not to mention callous. Sex may indeed be exactly what a forceful, unreflective woman like Jordana — one of the book’s most compelling characters — would seek out in a time of stress, but Noel doesn’t make clear why. Instead of burrowing into Jordana’s mind and excavating her tangled motivations, Noel sticks to her symmetrical blueprint, giving equal time to each family member, including buttoned-up, boring Pieter. If I could suggest a role model for Noel, it would be Sue Miller, a peerless chronicler of contemporary family life who may start out with the ingredients of a topical melodrama, but never lets a preconceived formula keep her from telling a wildly original story.