Emily Chenoweth’s debut novel Hello Goodbye was inspired by the author’s life. Her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour when Chenoweth was in her first year of college. Instead of writing a memoir, though, the author decided to use her experiences as fodder for a work of fiction because she could “explore the feelings and experiences that I did remember, but I could also craft a story that had a different arc than my own.”
And what a story it is.
The novel begins with Helen Hansen returning from a run and collapsing on the kitchen floor. Fast forward a few months and Elliott has arranged a holiday armed with the knowledge that Helen, due to the “astrocytoma in her frontal lobe” hasn’t much time left. Eighteen-year-old Abby has accompanied her parents to The Presidential Hotel (think Dirty Dancing‘s Kellerman’s, complete with dance lessons and liveried staff) in New Hampshire. Elliott wants to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary, but also invites the couples’ dearest friends as a farewell of sorts.
He’s made the decision not to tell Helen because he wants her to keep fighting but has also decided that this holiday will be his opportunity to break the news to his daughter and their oldest friends.
Abby is mildly annoyed by the whole affair, but she is also hoping that this change of scenery will do them all some good.
In a grand place like this, it seemed possible that everything might get a little bit better. She could imagine her father relaxing, her mother feeling stronger, and herself becoming kinder and more attentive,
She is also hoping that she might meet someone…anyone, really and when someone slips a note under her door Abby feels like “there might be something to look forward to.” She does meet two someones: Alex and Vic. Vic, by a strange twist of fate, is from her hometown back in Ohio. He was a student at the school where her father is headmaster, a delinquent plucked from the system by her mother, a counsellor. He also happens to be the first person Abby ever kissed, and it is a moment she remembers vividly.
Elliott is watching his daughter almost as closely as he is watching his wife. Abby is “unfamiliar to him in a new way.” He acknowledges that Abby has always been closer to her mother than she has been to him; “She looked just like her mother — everyone said so.”
Over the course of the week, each of the members of the family grapple with the future and Chenoweth manages to make every single moment ache with …well, life, really. Here are the Hansens remembering all the good times they had with their friends. Here is Helen regarding the body that is now failing her.
Why hadn’t she celebrated those big strong thighs instead of trying all the time to shrink them? Why hadn’t she found her feet beautiful, or her sturdy ankles. Why hadn’t she loved her coarse, graying hair? Why had she not praised every perfect square inch of herself? She feels an almost unbearable ache of longing for all that doesn’t belong to her anymore.
Here is Abby filled with a combination of dread and embarrassment and unarticulated love. Here is Elliott traveling back and forth over the twenty years he’s shared with Helen.
I can’t begin to express how moving this novel is. I don’t think it’s necessary to have lost someone in your life to appreciate the journey these characters are on. This is a glorious, beautifully written testament to family, friendship and the inherent joys and sorrows to be found in the minutia of a life. Just glorious.
Highly times a thousand recommended.