A busted marriage, gay prostitution, a potential murder charge—what’s a nice Texas family doing in a state like this?
Porter’s absorbing debut novel chronicles the slow-motion fracture of an upper-middle-class Houston clan. Elson, a well-regarded architect, has recently split from his wife, Cadence, and both are clumsily pursuing new relationships. Their son, Richard, is a promising young gay poet who’s uncertain about how much he wants to commit to his art. But the real problem is their daughter, Chloe, who’s been suspended from college under obscure circumstances. As Porter (The Theory of Light and Matter, 2008) cycles through each family member’s inner life, their turmoil becomes more pronounced, and it becomes clear just what a heap of trouble Chloe is in: Her boyfriend, Raja, was involved in the violent beating of a fellow student who was bullying him, and Chloe’s efforts to protect Raja have attracted police attention. The prose is smooth—practically frictionless, thanks to Porter’s realistic yet meaningful dialogue and his plainspoken, nonjudgmental descriptions. (Porter operates in a practically metaphor-free universe.) Such simplicity can be to the book’s detriment—the emotional conflicts, particularly between Elson and Cadence, sometimes feel undramatic and shopworn. Porter is on much firmer footing with Chloe and Richard: Every chapter in which they appear is more tense, defined by the clattering of existential questions they ponder. Porter wants to explore why we take such firm hold of some parts of our emotional lives but willfully neglect others, and his surprise ending suggests why it’s worth breaking free of others’ definitions of emotional attainment. The plot strains credulity in its later chapters, as Chloe disappears, and Richard is willing to do anything to help, but Porter’s cool tone helps sell the story.
A conventional dysfunctional-family tale that gets over on the author’s firm command of language and his characters’ neuroses.