A young woman is kicked out of college, and her family struggles to understand.
Andrew Porter, whose short story collection won a fair share of acclaim (from me as well, in these pages), has now produced a debut novel that has a great deal in common with his stories, which makes it thoroughly enjoyable to read but difficult to review.
Firmly in the contemporary mode of the realist tradition, "In Between Days" immerses readers in a family drama already well underway, as reflected through the perspectives of the four family members concerned: Elson Harding, a once promising, now largely stalled Houston architect; Cadence, his ex-wife, somewhat adrift after a life subsumed in marriage and motherhood; Chloe, their daughter, inexplicably asked to leave her East Coast college in her junior year, and Richard, their gay son (and the only Harding with a common name), struggling over his decision to come out ... as a poet.
It is Chloe's predicament that sets things in motion. What's happened to her is presented as a mystery, which, as long as we're in the points-of-view of her mystified parents or brother, makes perfect sense. But when we're seeing the story from Chloe's perspective, the withholding of critical information about her case can seem a little coy, a writerly ploy to sustain suspense -- when the real story, about the Hardings' handling of this crisis, has more than enough suspense to sustain us.
What does emerge, and very effectively, from the novel's shifting of time and parceling out of information, is a real and moving sense of how families are composed of so many moments mutually and individually and collectively experienced. Late in the book Elson remembers one such instance when, eating a meal in silence, "they are together in this moment. They are doing what they believe, what they've been taught, families do."
Set against this notion of family formed according to pattern is the richer, emotionally messy picture of family that the novel affords, as when Richard, ruing a decision to "help" his sister, understands "that her judgment had been clouded by love, just as his own judgment had been clouded by love, and just as his parents, back in the house, playing their old charade, just as his parents' judgment had been clouded by love." And this is something Porter does very well -- conveys the way families operate, as love and judgment vie for supremacy and neither entirely serves.
The prose is quiet but eloquent. The excitement takes place mostly offstage, and the plot unfolds slowly. And yet the author manages to make us care, to help us see how every move and each decision, however seemingly important or inconsequential, ravels and unravels a family's life, as the fabric nonetheless somehow holds together.
Ellen Akins teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson's MFA program. She lives in Wisconsin.