Author: Emily Chenoweth
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Published Date: June 14, 2011
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Book Summary: In the summer after her freshman year of college, Abby Hansen embarks on what might be a final vacation with her parents to a historic resort in northern New Hampshire. The Presidential Hotel, with its stately rooms and old-fashioned dress code, seems almost unbearably stuffy to Abby, but the young, free-spirited hotel staff offers her the chance for new friendships, and maybe even romance.
However, for her parents, Elliott and Helen, their time spent together in the shadow of the White Mountains has taken on a deeper meaning. By inviting family friends to join them, they open their marriage up to a lifetime of confessions, and they must confront a secret about Helen’s health that they have been hiding from their daughter.
Heartbreaking and luminous, Hello Goodbye deftly explores a family’s struggle with love and loss, as a summer vacation becomes an occasion for awakening.
My Thoughts: Somebody once told me I like to read depressing books in which bad things happen to people. I beg to differ! Human beings and their behavior intrigue me. As such, friends have said I should've gone into psychology or psychiatry because I like to listen to people talk about their lives. All aspects: the good, the bad and the ugly. And, in point of fact, I'm pretty good at it. Illness and tragedy are a part of life and people react to them in a variety of ways. What I've seen in my own life makes me interested in the human condition, but I'm not a voyeur, so I read fiction.
A good study of people in the face of illness comes from Emily Chenoweth's debut novel, Hello Goodbye. It begins as the Hayes family pulls up to the Presidential Hotel one Monday morning in August 1990. It's quickly apparent that something isn't right. The Presidential Hotel presents so "... spectacular and sudden a vision" as you drive through ornate iron gates and up "...a narrow road beneath vine-wrapped lampposts whose globes flickered with gaslight, past a pond edged by daylilies and tall, whispering grasses..." but there's little reaction from the Hayes. When wife and mother, Helen starts to say the hotel looks like a ship but cannot remember which, she says "You know, that one..." Abby, the eighteen-year old daughter, replies, "Actually, we don't know". Her unexpected rudeness contrasts vividly with the beautiful setting. Not the relaxed excitement you expect from a family on vacation at a beautiful resort.
Emily Chenoweth does a good job creating a family trying to appear normal but filled with tension and uncertainty. Abby holds out the hope that possibly, in a grand place like this, things might get a bit better: "She could imagine her father relaxing, her mother feeling stronger, and herself becoming kinder and more attentive.". Before long we realize Abby's father Elliott doesn't share her hope. But he hasn't shared everything he knows with Abby or Helen for quite some time. Elliott is so tense and unnerved, he's taken up smoking. And smoking a lot.
Helen Hayes was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor seven months ago. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, doctors informed Elliott there was nothing more to be done and Helen will die soon. Elliott still hasn't shared this information with anyone, including Abby. He's planned a week's vacation at the Presidential Hotel resort in New Hampshire, near where he and Helen lived when they were first married. Several long-time friends will join them during the week, which will culminate in a dinner celebrating Elliott and Helen's 20th Anniversary. At some point during the week, Elliott will tell their friends and then Abby what the doctors told him
Elliott Hayes is one of the two main characters in Hello Goodbye narrated in the third person. Elliott is a decent man in an impossible, upsetting situation. He desperately wants to protect Helen and Abby from the truth but knows that ultimately he can't. His awareness of his inability to do so frustrates him. Chenoweth does a remarkable job creating a man who, in his fear of losing the woman he loves and their life together, realizes his limits as a human being. It comes naturally and without surprise that he almost collapses under the weight of this knowledge. This is a testament to Chenoweth's ability to understand people, and it's even more impressive that she is able to paint so believable a portrait of someone of the opposite sex.
Abby is the other main character but she's not as sympathetic or relatable. Chenoweth has made her, for lack of a better term, the "typical" sullen teenager. But this doesn't quite fit particularly since Abby is eighteen-years old. Abby has been away at college and isn't aware of what the last seven months have been like for her mother or her father. She only knows Helen is a shadow of the woman she used to be, literally and figuratively. She and Helen had an extremely close relationship, as much like sisters and best friends as mother and daughter. It's difficult to discern this from Abby's behavior towards Helen now. Abby spends little time with her mother and when they are together, she seems to be there more out of a sense of duty than desire.
Her attitude towards Elliot is short and dismissive, her thoughts are rude and she shows no empathy for the obviously difficult time he is having. It's no wonder Elliott finds Abby closed-off and confusing. Our initial urge is to sympathize with Abby and to hug her. But her detached, self-absorbed attitude alters that quickly. We also find her confusing, on the one hand immature and self-centered, on the other troubled and endearing.
Abby's not relaxed with her peers, either. The young members of the hotel staff invite her to their after-hours gatherings. She's awkward, insecure and uncomfortable when the boys pay attention to her and quiet and reserved with the girls. When Vic, a young, smart, good looking member of the staff, who spent time with Abby's family several years ago, calls her stuck-up, we're inclined to agree. Unfortunately, Chenoweth doesn't provide us enough information to fully understand what's going on with Abby. She comes across as a genuine, flawed human being, a stereotypical teenager in some ways. But she's too old to be an immature, spoiled girl. I suppose it's possible that she's reverted to that behavior in light of Helen's illness. Abby prioritizes her life while at the Presidential Hotel, in such a way that meeting people seems more important than her family. She has this one week to spend with her family, her mother in particular, away from the rigors of everyday life and Helen's medical issues. Instead she retreats to her peers. It's hard to sympathize with Abby, let alone like her. She's intriguing but not really recognizable to us. Our hope is that she finds her way to reconciling the reality of life, her mother's illness and her father's love for her and becomes a well adjusted, if not happy young woman.
Hello Goodbye is not a sappy, melodramatic treatise on coping with the debilitating illness of a loved one. Chenoweth's novel is an unsentimental, realistic look at how one family copes with their grief as beloved wife, mother and friend struggles with cancer. Chenoweth makes some astute observations about human behavior and manages convincingly to include light-hearted moments in her poignant debut. Still, while reading Hello Goodbye I couldn't dismiss the feeling that something was missing. Possibly it's too reserved and needs a little pathos, if not sentimentality. I'm having trouble putting my finger on it. Don't misunderstand me: I much prefer Chenoweth's novel to overly-emotional stories that try to be heart wrenching. But Elliot and Abby in particular seem too disconnected from real life at times. Perhaps that disconnectedness is what Chenoweth wanted to convey and for us to feel. She does this effectively if we are to take it that the main characters are in shock over the sudden, dramatic change in their enjoyable lives. The problem is, as with some other issues in the book, we don't know because Chenoweth doesn't provide us quite enough information.
Overall this is a powerful, deeply penetrating and captivating book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in a book about coping with life in crisis. Or if you just want a good read that has an impact. Chenoweth's debut novel has, in my opinion, something for everyone and I look forward to her next effort.
Thank you to Harper Perennial for a copy of Hello Goodbye and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book.