Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Halfway House

Halfway House, by Katharine Noel
8/10, Engaging family drama centering around a New England girl’s manic-depressive episodes

During the fabulist fiction workshop I took, our teacher took us to a reading from “Halfway House,” by Katharine Noel, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford who’d just gotten her book published. A year later, I took a workshop from her titled “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown,” which I have written about previously and which I found very valuable.

“Halfway House” showcases her considerable talent for dialogue, conflict, and description. Centering on a New England family, the Voorsters, it is rich in family drama and tension, conflict saturating each page. The story kicks off with Angie, a high school senior and swimming star, suffering a nervous breakdown of sorts; what really happens is that the manic phase of her bipolar disorder becomes too extreme for her to conceal. Convinced that she no longer needs to breathe, she dives into the pool in the middle of a race she isn’t entered in, and stays there.

Her father, mother, and younger brother all get more or less equal time in the story as they try to adjust to the way in which Angie’s illness affects their lives. Meanwhile, Angie herself tries to cope with not just her illness, but the ways in which it changes her relationship to her family and friends. The resulting tapestry is painful to read at times, but the journey of each character is rich and complex, as beautifully rendered as the New England setting. Noel’s prose flows easily, building characters and images with equal skill.

Certainly, her characters will stay with me. In true New England fashion, they remain fairly isolated from each other, dealing with the crisis in their own ways and rarely talking to each other about it. In some cases, Angie’s problems open wider cracks that already exist; in other cases, she allows them to find reserves of strength to handle their lives.

The breadth of the story makes it almost inevitable that there can’t be a tidy resolution. The characters are so real that this has the air of a slice-of-life biography, in which the particular episode may be resolved, but their lives are so detailed that there is no way to wrap up everything without resorting to gimmicks. I thought Angie’s story came to a good resolution, and her younger brother Luke’s ended well enough, but I wanted to see a little more resolution from her parents. It would also have been nice to see more of how the family reacts to Angie’s story ending–fittingly, her story ends the book, but left me with questions about how the others would react.

The only other quibble I had with the book was that there was no overarching tension. Angie’s battle with her illness doesn’t really reach a crescendo; it peaks and flattens, until it reaches a resolution that is completely believable, but slightly flat. From a screenwriting perspective, it doesn’t feel like Angie goes through a final “battle”–and this, here, is very likely just my expectation as regards a character novel. I’m just trying to explain why I felt the beats of the story were slightly off.

That’s no reason not to pick up the book. Just reading Noel’s writing is a delight, and observing the skilful way in which she handles character growth, dialogue, and not only description, but interaction between the characters and their settings, would be enough if she hadn’t also written an intriguing story about mental illness and its impact on sufferers and their families. I hope it doesn’t take her eight years to write another book, as she said it did for her to write this one.

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