When illness strikes, people place their faith in curious things; in Hello Goodbye, Elliott Hansen places his in the exclusive Presidential - a historic resort in the White Mountains. Reeling from the diagnosis of his wife Helen's inoperable brain tumor, Elliott's once simple life has become utterly complicated.
It was ironic, he thought, the way a situation that exposed once and for all the essential powerlessness of the human animal in the face of fortune also revealed the importance of good conduct within that powerlessness. There was nothing you could do and yet you could not do nothing.
Spurred to action by Helen's impending death, Elliott books a week long stay for family and friends under the guise of an anniversary celebration. In sole possession of the fact that Helen's prognosis is terminal, Elliott holds out hope that the decadence and beauty of the Presidential might somehow compensate for the staggering news he must deliver.
With some bitterness and trepidation, Abby joins her middle-aged parents on this excursion into the White Mountains. Because she doesn't know the severity of her mother's illness, Abby still has the luxury of wallowing in her own anger and self pity. "No one ever said: 'Someday you'll have to babysit your own mother.'" Both loving and churlish at times, Abby is torn by her deep affection for her mother and the inconvenience and injustice of Helen's illness. Now forced to contemplate this lesser version of her once vibrant mother, Abby struggles to maintain her independence while grappling with this new reversal of roles.
The arrival of Helen and Elliott's lifelong friend illuminate the true tragedy of this novel. Though the Hansen friends are full of life, the deterioration of their dear Helen makes this celebration ever more poignant. Ms. Chenoweth's canny use of characters allows us a glimpse of better days gone by and an understanding of the magnitude of what they all stand to lose. Through their laughter and tears, Hello Goodbye poses the agonizing question of how to grieve the loss of a friend who is still alive.
As friends and family fuss around her, Helen certainly must know all is not well. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Helen craves the sweetness of sleep. "When she's sleeping, she's not half blind or clumsy or forgetful. She's simply herself... The waking is what's hard. That had been the worst part: to learn the truth each day all over again." Still innocent of her prognosis, Helen puts her best foot forward. With good nature, she accepts the attentions of her adoring friends, eternally safe in the comfort of the familiar.
Hello Goodbye has a lot going on for a one week stay. Themes of love, relationship and loss abound, but are sometimes obscured by the commotion of shifting plots and story lines. Despite such fluctuations, Emily Chenoweth's novel holds unexpected and pleasant surprises. Her witty and engaging characters easily balance out the darker issues of mortality and the transience of life. A quick read, one laments the lack of time to get to know this group more intimately, but perhaps that is precisely the point of Hello Goodbye. As the last of his guests glide down the drive of the Presidential, Elliott reflects on an uncertain future but a choice well made. "Maybe, he thought, it was enough for now just to feel blessedly alive."
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the June 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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