Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth

(Side note: Part of me feels as I am cheating on Barnes and Noble as lately I am reading library books/reading at the library or on the go. I hope BandN forgives me when I return).

There is something about the cover of this novel that perfectly matches the style of the writing. I think it is the feather that the title sits on. There is something feathery about the style of this novel. It is incredibly slow-paced, in the sense that the whole novel (273 pages) takes place over a short period of time.  First we have the diagnosis of the protagonist with a brain tumor. Then we have an amount of days resembling a week in the August that follows.  While the story begins with Helen and her seizure that follows a long run.  The book immediately shifts to narrate the experiences of her college-aged daughter Abby and her husband of twenty years, Elliott, a head master of a prep school in Ohio.  Helen, Abby and Elliott are journeying back to New Hampshire, a state they used to live in, to stay in a beautiful hotel and celebrate Helen and Elliott's twentieth anniversary with life long friends. They are also there to say goodbye, and to give Elliott a break from the mundanity of caring for his ailing wife.  But it is only Elliott that knows this fact. As he has not told Helen or Abby that Helen only has three more months to live. Apparently her doctors believe it is important not to tell her as this would leave her to give up; its hard to imagine such a thing happening to an adult woman today.  But the book is written in 1990 and I suppose it is possible the medical practice could have approached terminal illness differently back then. Part of me was bothered by this detail, but it is part of what gives the novel momentum and its story line, so I understand why it has to be.

There is heartache in this novel. The heartache of meeting a character who was once vivacious but only seeing her as the woman in unfancy easy-to-remove clothes, being babysat by her own child. A character who counseled troubled teens, and made the most of her own life, only to be stricken with cancer before middle age. It is an every-day story.  A reality that happens to so many today. It is easily a timeless story. And yet the novel is also a clear record of a different age.   It is 1990, and Abby goes to a liberal arts college where she learns to embrace vegetarianism and composting and wraps her head around the idea of the "the second shift."  There is no talk of email or blackberries or phones abuzz.

At the heart of it, this is a novel about the fragility of life.  One  of Elliott's dear friends likes to drive fast cars, and has remarried to a wife 20 years younger. And yet, he can't fight the reality that his life is changing - he is no longer a twenty-something. One of his friend's is dying.  The group dynamic is altering irrevocably.

There is no shocking ending here like in a Jodi Picoult novel (my mom is still angry about the ending of the last one). As much as we want to believe that things can change for this happy-go-lucky woman, we know they will not.  Thus, Chenoweth captures a bite of the real.  And in my mind that is a very big compliment.

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