Synopses & Reviews
Met with overwhelming critical praise on its initial hardcover release including raves from The New York Times
and Entertainment Weekly
this remarkable debut novel by Katharine Noel illuminates the fault lines in one family's relationships, as well as the complexemotional ties that bind them together.
One day, Angie Voorster diligent student, all-star swimmer and Ivy League-bound high school senior dives to the bottom of a pool and stays there. In that moment, everything the Voorster family believes they know about each other changes.
Set in a small town in New Hampshire, Halfway House is the story of Angie's psychotic break and her family's subsequent turmoil. Angie is a charismatic young woman brilliant, witty, and passionate until she swings to manic highs and dangerous lows. Each of her family members responds differently to the ongoing crisis: Her father Pieter, a Dutch-born professional cellist, retreats further into his career. Her mother begins a destabilizing affair with a younger man. Her little brother, Luke, first distances himself as much as possible from his sister, then later drops out of college to be closer to her. And Luke's college girlfriend, Wendy, who comes from a farming town in Iowa, provides an outsider's perspective on the family's teeter toward collapse. The Voorsters manage for a time to maintain a semblance of the normalcy they had "before," when they were the ideal New England family; it is not until Angie is finally able to fend for herself that the family is able to truly fall apart and then regather itself in a new, fundamentally changed way.
With grace and precision rarely seen in a first novel, Noel guides the reader through a world where love is imperfect, and where longing for an imagined ideal can both destroy one family's happiness and offer it redemption. Halfway House introduces a powerful, eloquent new literary voice.
"Engaging...compelling and convincing...Noel successfully captures that in-between, unmoored state of debilitating
psychosis, that place where life is half underwater." S. Kirk Walsh, The New York Times
"Noel's stunning debut novel moves us through painfully believable human relationships tested, repaired, and transformed by time and experience....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." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"An emotionally intense, beautifully crafted debut." People
"Crisply on target the peak moments of the book have a perilous vigor to them....[A] genuine talent." Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"Noel's finely wrought world of loneliness and fear, the pleasures of connection and the ferocity and unpredictability of mental illness, has its own quiet power....Memorable first novel with a uniquely powerful grace." Laura Ciolkowski, The Boston Globe
"Thoughtful characterizations and graceful prose...Noel deserves immense credit for her precise and delicate description of the grinding years that follow [Angie's break]." Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
"This is a compassionate exploration of a nightmarish disease and the havoc it wreaks on ordinary lives." Sheerly Avni, San Francisco Magazine
"Stunningly written....A very intense and enjoyable debut from a young novelist with promise and talent." Sarah Rachel Egelman, BookReporter.com
"Compassionate and compelling....Noel's depiction of Angie's depression is frightening in its accuracy....She doesn't shy away from the facts but instead weaves them into a story that is enjoyable and triumphant." Ellison G. Weist, Portland Tribune
"Noel is adept at describing the complexities of the heart and mind." Pam Locker, Evansville Courier & Press
"Compulsively readable....The story will ring true to anyone who's survived the psychological ups and downs of family life. The opening chapter alone shines with metaphoric brilliance." Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel
"With these characters, Katharine Noel brings us a whole world, carved in sharp relief, as it moves in and out of madness. A brilliant novel. There is nothing like this; it feels just like life." Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli
"In Katharine Noel's stunning debut novel, family life is revealed laid open in all its love and warmth and, yes, its darkness, too. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, sister and brother, father and son: each character lives on the page, and together they teach us the best lessons of fiction: how we live, and how we live through crisis. I was enthralled." Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen's Pier
"Can this really be Katharine Noel's first book? Halfway House is written with such fearless grace, such originality of vision, it reads like the work of a master. Noel has an uncanny ability to render the complicated relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives. She slips into the darkest corners of human experience so adroitly that you're not aware how deep you've gone until you find yourself laughing or weeping over the page. The book becomes an obsession, its characters so real you can't bear to turn away. This is the kind of novel that creates ardent fans; without a doubt, it is the beginning of a brilliant literary career." Julie Orringer, author of How To Breathe Underwater
"In her rich ambitious novel, Halfway House, Katherine Noel gives us not just a handful of vignettes, not a few slices of time and glimpses of character, but a whole world: she explores years of upheaval and tenderness, layers of anguish, uncertainty, and deep communion with acute insight and agile pacing. Her depiction of the brother-sister relationship is flawless in its harrowingly accurate range of feeling and experience. With her portrait of Angie, Noel ventures far beneath the surface of mental illness and finds all the life and humor and humanity that is waiting below." Lily King, author of The Pleasing Hour and The English Teacher
One day, Angie Voorster diligent student, all-star swimmer and ivy-league bound high school senior dives to the bottom of a pool and stays there. In that moment, everything the Voorster family believes they know about each other changes. Katharine Noel's extraordinary debut illuminates the fault lines in one family's relationships, as well as the complex emotional ties that bind them together.
With grace and precision rarely seen in a first novel, Noel guides her reader through a world where love is imperfect, and where longing for an imagined ideal can both destroy one family's happiness and offer them redemption. Halfway House introduces a powerful, eloquent new literary voice.
Set in a small town in New Hampshire, this novel is the story of a girl's psychotic break and her family's subsequent turmoil. With grace and precision rarely seen in a first novel, Noel guides readers through a world where love is imperfect, and where longing for an imagined ideal can both destroy one family's happiness and offer redemption.
About the Author
Katharine Noel is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where she formerly held a Stegner Fellowship. Previously, Noel lived and worked for two years on a farm with a group of adults with mental illnesses. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is at work on her second novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the beginning of the novel, Angie is a gifted, dedicated student and a brilliant swimmer. She has friends, a solid family, and a promising future. She is successful by most of the usual standards, especially those of college admissions directors. Yet she is felled by mania in a variety of ways: irrational behavior, anger, and depression. Discuss the range of Angie's struggles. Insomnia plagues her: "Waking up, there was a moment Angie didn't feel bad. Then it descended again onto her chest, like a cat that had merely stood to change position and was now settling more securely" (p. 72). Her battles are legion and monumental. She has to fight to appear sane or well; she has to find out who she is; she has to strike a balance with her parents between childhood and adulthood. The usual coming-of-age problems are magnified by her illness. She has to struggle against hurting herself, finding ways to feel safe. She fights sadness and alienation as she tries even to like herself. Pick some of these battles and talk about them. Are there any clues to her fragility before her public breakdown?
2. The inciting force for the Voorster family trial by fire is Angie's breakdown and persistent illness. Their loyalty to her and to the family both sustains and tests them. Cite moments when all of themPieter, Jordana, and Lukeare harried almost to breaking by their fears for Angie. Then, beyond Angie, each embarks on other trials. Give examples (e.g., Pieter pushes himself to near death by skating alone in a blizzard). How much of the characters' pain is self-inflicted and how much is instigated by others?
3. What makes Halfway House a work that touches us on many levels? Is it that we all have known people like Angie and her family? Do we recognize the fine line or sudden trapdoor between sanity and mental illness? Have people in your own life described their fears in vivid terms? Some have said depression is like being locked in a black bag. Others have described the sense of self seeping out like sand. What other images, in the book or in your life, have made you understand mania or depression?
4. How honest are the characters in the book? To themselves? To others? Is honesty a redeeming trait of the Voorster family? When are times they subvert it?
5. Do the various angles of vision provide a coherent whole narrative? Are we left with rich but distinct viewpoints, almost a Rashomon collage of the whole story? Can competing interpretations be true in a work of fiction? In life?
6. What is the result of suffering in the story? Does it raise characters to a higher level? Or debase them? Does it cause them to reach out to each other? Which ones? Do any react to suffering by shutting down or growing petty and querulous?
7. Explore the various implications of the title. How is the actual halfway house distinct from the larger world? How is it similar? What insight do we gain about the NIMBY (not in my backyard) phenomenon? Could the title refer to the Voorster house as well?
8. How are youth and age contrasted in the novel? Does the author divide her sympathy and close attention equally among the different ages? Does the term "coming-of-age" have to be limited to the young? Which characters show significant growth in response to the events in the book?
9. As the story progresses, do Angie and her family have retrospective understanding of her illness? Often in books about psychiatric patients, we have a central character, the doctor, who interprets events for the patient and for the reader. Which characters approach this role, however fleetingly? Can anyone be seen as a trusted adviser? Is it oddly Angie with her "funny, off-center way of looking at the world" (p. 149) who sometimes seems to have the best insight about other people? Is it she who is sometimes the linchpin? Give examples. In the absence of dependable advisers, what other resources do characters turn to for solace?
10. Dilemma has been defined as a situation in which a character must choose between two courses of action, both undesirable. Do you see the people in Halfway House caught in dilemmas? Are they trying to reconcile conflicting roles? Give examples.
11. Is the disintegration of Pieter and Jordana's marriage credible after they had started with so much passion? Is one partner more to blame than the other? Is it Angie's illness alone that has taken such a toll on them? Can you predict their future at the end?
12. How is betrayal a recurrent need and blight in the novel? How does it affect Pieter, Jordana, Luke, and Wendy? For Luke, "[e]very time he thought of Wendy, it felt like taking a step and pitching down a staircase" (p. 236). For Pieter, "Jordana carried his identity more than he did" (p. 137). After his discovery of her adultery, "[h]e didn't feel he had enough of a self to talk to other peopleto smile, to pour a drinkwithout ripping in two" (p. 138). What makes some couples able to pick up and re-create their lives together and others incapable of it? How is the idea of betrayal relevant to Angie? Does she feel her whole identity has been betrayed by her chemistry?
13. After reading the novel, what are your conclusions about the mental health system? Does the administering of drugs seem appropriate and effective? Do you think overwork and underpayment erode the quality of caregiving? Does the financial burden on the family seem necessary? Fair?
14. Where do issues of class absorb or define characters? Inside institutions or halfway houses? Outside? Would you say that mental illness is a democratizing force? A leveling one?
15. How does work shape characters' lives? Pieter's? Jordana's? Angie's? Luke's? For whom does work seem more important than human relationships? Can work or art become crippling in its obsessiveness? Does a driven artist have a choice?
16. The brother-sister relationship, that of Luke and Angie, is richly explored. How is Angie Luke's nemesis? How is she also his redemption? Wendy observes that Luke was only "really upset when he saw his sister. His sister was also the one person who could make him howl with laughter" (p. 172). Taking Angie's mental illness seriously is something Luke resists at first. Then, "[t]he night she'd fallen down the stairs at the Burnt House, almost four years ago, he'd gotten itreally gotten it, for the first timethat she wasn't faking. It was like that optical illusion where you saw an old woman and then realized the picture could be a young woman as well: a tiny shift, but it had rearranged everything" (p. 149). Do you recall a similar image when Luke finally locates the wandering Angie on the roadside?
17. The central house, the Voorsters', endures in a reconfigured state at the end. The house (not her home anymore, she reminds herself) even remains a strong point of reference for Jordana., Describe the actions and reactions of the different characters at the last supper when the family convenes. Whose do you find most poignant? Do you have more empathy for Pieter or Jordana after this family meal?
18. Has Angie found an answer for herself in San Francisco? Do you expect her equilibrium to last?