Katherine Hill is a D.C. native whose hometown environs star in her first novel, “The Violet Hour.” She describes Bethesda as “a squadron of soft red condominiums, anchored by chic, family-friendly restaurants.” The Metro section of The Washington Post also makes a cameo, if only as a wadded-up ball shoved through the holes of a chain-link fence.
No hard feelings for the shoddy treatment, however. “The Violet Hour” may not be an ode to “the unfashionable wilds of suburban Washington,” but it is a rewarding family saga reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels circa “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.”
Hill’s story unfurls from the kind of sensational marital spat that makes you feel better about your own imperfect union. Cassandra and Abe Green are sailing in San Francisco Bay with their only child, Harvard-bound golden girl Elizabeth, when one stray criticism ignites a five-alarm fire of rage. Abe dives into the water and starts swimming for shore. This is the end of their marriage.
From there, “The Violet Hour” jumps several years ahead, when Elizabeth is a medical student moonlighting as a perpetual guest on the New York City wedding circuit. After one well-described bacchanal, she heads to Bethesda to celebrate her grandfather’s 80th birthday. But soon after she arrives, the man of the hour, Howard Fabricant, falls off a ladder while building a backyard sauna and dies. Conveniently, the Fabricants are undertakers, so the family knows what to do, which inspires some wonderfully witty moments. (Grandma is “the Grande Dame of Grief Decorum.”)
Unexpectedly, Elizabeth’s father arrives in Bethesda to pay his respects. Abe and Cassandra have not spoken since they set the terms of their divorce eight years before. What happens next is like a behind-the-scenes tour of Awkward Family Photos, complete with missed connections and a pea-soup fog of regret. We see how the reunion affects each member of the family, especially Elizabeth, who is not over her parents’ split. Hill’s sudden shifts in perspective can be bumpy, but they’re balanced out by lovely flashbacks to the Greens’ happier days as young paramours in San Francisco.
Like any crew of mourners, Elizabeth’s relatives are not always well-behaved. But as with the family members who sat shiva in Jonathan Tropper’s hilarious
“This Is Where I Leave You,” their petty grievances are every bit as fun as real grief is devastating. Thanks to Hill’s assured voice, the Fabricants’ occasional flashes of harmony and humor will leave you with the charmed feeling of having seen a rainbow over the Beltway.
Egan is the books editor at Glamour magazine.