And then, suddenly, her mother was sitting, gripping the bench with her fingertips, and her father was standing, purposefully, on the very edge of the starboard gunwale. They were silent under the noise of the wind. And then her mother turned and stood and started to say something, and her father turned his back and dove. His body was in the air for an instant, and then, as if by some camera trick, there was nothing but water and air.
The Violet Hour opens with Abe, a doctor, his wife Cassandra, an artist, and their daughter, Elizabeth, about to become a student at Harvard, out on Abe’s boat. Between sailing, drinking and warning Elizabeth about ‘boys’, tempers flare and Abe’s knowledge of his wife’s affair with a younger man is screamed into the open.
He remembered a time when he thought it dangerous to have a wife this beautiful. Like opening your wallet on the street, you were just asking for someone to rob you. In the old days, when he took her to bed at the end of a long day apart, he was reckless, sometimes tearing buttons from her shirts. If he wanted her so badly, he could only imagine how other men felt, who couldn’t have her at all.
Time then springs forward: Elizabeth is nearing the end of her training at medical school and has been dating an actor, Kyle for two years; Cassandra and Abe are long divorced.
We’re then introduced to Cassandra’s parents, Abe’s having died before Elizabeth was born. Elizabeth’s grandparent’s house is referred to as ‘The funeral home’ as her grandfather runs a funeral parlor in the basement.
The family are coming together, minus Abe, to celebrate Cassandra’s father’s/Elizabeth’s grandfather’s birthday. Howard Fabricant is eighty. However, on his eightieth birthday, Howard Fabricant will die and what should’ve been a birthday celebration will become a wake. A gathering that will see Kyle leave and Abe arrive.
The truth was that Cassandra had not actually spoken to Abe since they set their terms of divorce. Abe had left the lawyer’s office first; Cassandra waited for the second elevator. And then it had been eight years. It startled her every time she remembered. Had she been asked, in another life, if it were possible to quarrel with a man after twenty-some years and never speak to him again, much less a man she’d once loved ferociously, she would have answered that it was impossible, however doomed the relationship had become, but here it had happened, and to her.
The Violet Hour is the portrait of a family, and also of three individuals, affected by adultery and divorce. Throughout the course of the novel, each of the three main characters are revealed to be flawed human beings, two attempting to make sense of a middle-age faced alone, and the other reacting to events that continue to overwhelm her and inform her choices, something Elizabeth often seems unaware of.
My reaction to the book was mixed. Katherine Hill’s prose is wonderful and there are set pieces – the scene on the boat at the beginning, for example – that are beautifully done – the tension, driven by the both the reactions of the characters and our insight into their thoughts, is perfectly timed. I also liked that the characters were largely unlikeable. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of Cassandra’s sexuality – an adulterous woman, how outrageous! Even more so in middle age. At times, the novel reminded me of both Richard Yates’ and Jonathan Franzen’s work.
However, there were points where the book lacked drive – I wanted more than a character study (and I acknowledge that it’s possible the fault here lies with me and not the novel). I found Cassandra’s, Abe’s and Elizabeth’s lives to be tedious, centered almost entirely around their own desires, and I was desperate to give them a shake and tell them to get over themselves.
If you like well-written portraits of middle-class families then The Violet Hour is worth a read. Although I didn’t love it, I do think Hill’s a good writer and I will be looking out for her next book; hopefully it’ll be more to my taste.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.