Most of the way through the first scene of her debut novel The Violet Hour, Katherine Hill has expertly—deftly—brought her characters and the reader to the edge. The characters are the three members of the Green family: Abe, a rheumatologist, his wife Cassandra, an artist, and their 18 year old daughter Elizabeth, who is off to Harvard in the fall, "a family rendered in its most essential, basic parts: mother, father, child."
Hill has herself rendered the scene—the three Greens are out on Abe's new sailboat in the San Francisco Bay—with only its essentials: time flashing as it does on the water, emotions glinting then falling away, the sea silent yet pregnant with danger. For a young writer, Hill is indeed particularly capable as a manufacturer of taught, precise imagery, which she most effectively unleashes here as the book's first plot point takes its turn.
Cassandra emerges in these first page as both passive—a victim of sorts—and the aggressor in a marriage she is constantly testing. Now, the gin and tonics have run out and a not-so-carefully veiled secret has emerged, catching Elizabeth, innocent enough in her Harvard sweatshirt and bikini bottoms, unawares. "And then, suddenly," Hill writes,
"her mother was sitting, gripping the bench with her fingertips, and he 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 stood and started to say something, and her father turned his back and dove. His body was in the air for an instant over the water, and then, as if by some camera trick, there was nothing but water and air."
Abe's leap occurs around 1997; most of the rest of the book, which takes place in 2005 as Katrina unfolds, is an act of reconnection. But like an old, frayed wire, the Greens themselves flicker and spark—and sometimes go dark—in the process.
Hill wrote The Violet Hour while living in Philadelphia and working at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as a speech writer. And the book inhabits the comfortable Wharton world of Manhattan, suburban DC, and the Bay Area; Philadelphia, interestingly, doesn't quite fit (and only exists as the setting of Abe's strange childhood). Hill most certainly understands this ecosystem; she describes the corporate-sanitary and yet somehow authentic seeming landscape of downtown Bethesda, MD with aplomb, for example, and is at ease with the particular mania of upper middle class Bay Area parents.
The cloistered nature of this world is only emphasized by Hill's choice to place her story in August, 2005, during Katrina. News of it—and the government's racist response—trickles in. But the Greens, now grappling with a family tragedy, can't quite make sense of it. Vaguely liberal, Abe and Cassandra can only mutter empty political slogans and Elizabeth, about to graduate now from medical school, demonstrates no interest in responding to the greatest public health emergency of the era (in fact, she wants to enter the cushiest medical field, dermatology). Elizabeth isn't quite comfortable with herself, but she can't seem to push herself out of the comfort zone set up for high-achieving professionals. When she and a friend are aggressively confronted on the DC Metro by a deranged African-American veteran—a scene trope I wish Hill had avoided—Elizabeth thinks the man, who might certainly kill them, also might be a sage. She is yearning, in her divided consciousness, for a more meaningful connection to the world.
Hill is most persuasive as a writer when she defines and explores these kinds of relentless internal conflicts and divisions (and less interesting presenting realistic-sounding contemporary dialogue). Here is Cassandra through Elizabeth's eyes:
She seemed to have allowed her features to fall out of connection with one another, her mouth slack, her eyes wobbling in and out of focus. She looked, in that instant, utterly lost inside herself, as though her body were also a costume that had somehow slipped askew.