by Katharine Noel; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006, 384 pages, $23
Dr. Bauer is the medical services director for Northeast Center for Youth and Families, Easthampton, Massachusetts.
The novel Halfway House belongs to the tradition of novels about the psychotic breakdown of a young person and her long road to recovery. This is a first novel for author Katharine Noel, whose prose is often compelling in capturing human intimate moments. The flow of Noel's storytelling and her interesting characters carry the reader easily through the book.
The main character is a young woman named Angie, a star swimmer for her high school team, whose psychotic mania has her believing that she doesn't need to breathe while swimming underwater. Her promising young life is derailed by her hospitalization and subsequent stay in a farmlike halfway house. The novel covers the next six or so years of her life as she comes to terms with her illness, her treatment, and her life.
The larger story weaving in and out of Angie's is that of her family—her brother, parents, assorted lovers, and friends. The book's message is that each member of the family is isolated and strangely troubled and can't get out of his or her own way. Only the brother, Luke, remains somewhat likeable as someone who has a capacity to care for another person. Initially estranged from Angie, because she sucked up so much of her parents' attention, Luke persists through his older sister's prickly dismissive nature to become her best friend. Luke is the only one who has a sense of family that goes beyond guilt, obligation, and neediness. The parents wander away from each other without ever really knowing why they do it, and Angie moves across the country to live by herself.
In spite of Halfway House being well written, the book and its characters fail to be memorable. It covers well-trodden ground without adding to our understanding of how or why people survive such tragedies. Certainly, not much is here to inspire or enlighten, which in fairness is probably not the point of Noel's novel. The author seems to be reaching for capturing the ordinary in the extraordinary, and this may be enough for some readers. As a psychiatrist who treats adolescents, I could not help but think of a number of interesting things I would like to know about a family traveling over such difficult terrain that were not present in this novel.