"People Who Knock on the Door" may seem like a departure from the typical Patricia Highsmith fare. It is a story about the changes that occur in one family throughout the course of one year, a simple enough plot, but one filled with the sense of unease that proliferates Highsmith's writing. The novel is almost narrowly and simplistically focused at the beginning, but branches off as the story progresses, leaving readers unsure as to where to align themselves.
The novel opens rather vaguely, as Highsmith isn't one to state the obvious directly. The reader meets seventeen-year-old Arthur Alderman at the end of his senior year, ready to attend Columbia in the fall. When his fifteen-year-old brother Robbie becomes seriously ill, their father becomes a born-again Christian, suddenly devout to the Lord and expecting the same from his family. Arthur cannot align himself with his father's beliefs; he views his father as a hypocrite, a man who has preached the value of money all his life suddenly changing his beliefs and forcing his family to feel the same way. Arthur's mom goes along with this new life, in order to keep the peace, while his brother Robbie believes hook, line and sinker to the point of obsession.
When Arthur will not change his ways to suit his father, his father refuses to pay for college and kicks Arthur out of the house. Arthur's father cannot seem to see the damage he is creating in his own family, and when disaster strikes close to home and the tables are turned, it may be too late to reverse the changes he has wrought.
Highsmith spends a lot of the narrative following Arthur through his first year of college; it is a well-drawn portrait, but one that lacks the vividness of her best creations. Arthur rarely comes to life off the page, and that applies to the other characters as well. The story is somewhat predictable, the reader can easily guess most of what will unfold, but Highsmith is talented enough to maintain the suspense, subtly crafting cracks in Arthur's story. I found myself disliking the main character in the end; despite tragedy, he gets virtually everything he wants, but is he on the right side of the issues Highsmith writes about? And that is where the genius of "People Who Knock on the Door" lies - in the twists that take the reader from seeing everything from Arthur's perspective to questioning his ability to relate the story at hand.