Where did we get the idea that families are durable? Christmas cards? Prime time TV? Katharine Noel's sure-footed debut, Halfway House, tells the darker truth: most families — the ordinary ones, the sturdy-looking ones — are tinderboxes. Spark them and they blow.
The New York Times
A New Hampshire family comes apart at the seams when Angie Voorster, an ostensibly perfect high school senior and swim team star falls off the edge of mental stability. Among those affected are Pieter, Angie's emotionally inarticulate father; her mother, Jordana, 15 years Pieter's junior and seeking solace in the arms of a younger man; and Angie's younger brother, Luke, who becomes his sister's keeper. Debut novelist Noel brings these characters to life, exposing every blemish and desire, and revealing them in all their messy humanness. Over the next several years, bipolar Angie struggles to adjust to life derailed by mental illness, ever-changing prescriptions and their side effects: "She couldn't even lay claim to her own thoughts. Was she the thoughts she had on meds, when her brain was as it should be? Or was she the thoughts she had off meds, her brain as it really was?" Noel unflinchingly constructs scenes with a cinematographer's eye and injects humor into a world of chronic insomnia and suicide attempts. She resists sensationalizing or romanticizing mental illness, and with sympathetic knowledge of the subject (she worked at a mental health home), her keen insights are spot-on. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
In this novel of mental illness and familial relationships, readers will find much to relate to and much to think about. Angie Voorster seems to be the perfect daughter, with good grades, a bright future and acclaim as a swimmer. When one day she dives to the bottom of the pool and chooses not to come up, her family realizes that all is not what it seems and they spend much of the rest of the novel trying to figure out how they missed the signs and how to remake their lives around the new reality of Angie as she is, not what they thought she would be. While Angie spends years in and out of mental institutions, her familyher father, a professional cellist; her mother; and her younger brotherhave to reform their family, which seemingly centered on the perfect Angie. When her mother has an affair, her father seems to drift away. Her brother focuses too much of his energy on taking care of her to lead his own life, and it becomes apparent that Angie is not the only family member with problems. How they each deal with their own issues and form workable lives makes for a fascinating story. The author writes with a real understanding of mental illness and of the bonds that hold families together.
When a psychotic breakdown sends 17-year-old Angie Voorster diving into a New Hampshire swimming pool and disrupts her younger brother Luke's 100-meter freestyle race, the entire Voorster family is plunged along with her into years of medications, hospitalizations, and turmoil. Angie's battle with mental illness amplifies her family's growing isolation from one another as Luke first retreats from and then becomes so involved in his sister's recovery that he jeopardizes his own collegiate future. Mom and Dad-women's clinic administrator Jordana and Dutch-born cellist Pieter-unite to help their daughter but are tested by stress and infidelity. From the 1980s into the 1990s, Noel's stunning debut novel moves us through painfully believable human relationships tested, repaired, and transformed by time and experience. Close attention is paid to supporting characters-lovers and friends-and the New England setting is apt for such brittle and golden themes. This is suburban angst in the tradition of John Cheever and Rick Moody, told with a rare and honest sympathy that rings true by an author to watch. Recommended for all library fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]-Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
A New Hampshire family is transformed by mental illness in Noel's first novel. Angie Voorster is a straight-A student and a star athlete; at 17, she can take her pick of Ivy League schools. After a manic outburst at a swim meet, though, her future takes on a different trajectory. Angie's mental illness doesn't destroy her family, but it puts excessive pressure on it. Noel is very good with the everyday and particularly sensitive to the material world. The semi-functional appliances in the Voorster home-the CD player that needs to be propped up on one side with magazines, the refrigerator with the useless thermostat-speak eloquently of the family's semi-functional state. Phenomena as quotidian as a corrugated cardboard box or the smell of cold, wet earth become powerful conduits for emotion and memory. These moments give the narrative texture, and they allow the author to reveal her characters' inner lives and histories at a measured pace. Just as the Voorsters adapt themselves to the strange, new Angie, the universe of the everyday also shifts to accommodate her illness. As Angie moves through hospitals and outpatient centers, the author depicts places where madness is contained with rules and bureaucracy. Noel's representation of mental illness is sympathetic, but never romantic. The sicker Angie becomes, the smaller and more exhausting her world seems, her disease circumscribing her relatives' lives. Noel's handling of mental illness is compassionate and clear-eyed, but her tale is about more than Angie's disorder. It explores the mystery of family and its inexplicable, irresistible resilience in the face of affliction-whether mental illness, addiction, a disease of the body or someother pathology too subtle and rare to have a name. Graceful and quietly assured.