Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for Hello Goodbye
Helen Hansen is dying, but no one has told her that. Her treating physicians and husband, Elliott, have decided that it is better for Helen to continue to live with hope.
Abby, their eighteen-year-old daughter, has returned home from her first year of college. An only child, she and Helen are extremely close. So Elliott has decided that he is not going to tell Abby the truth, either.
Instead, since their twentieth wedding anniversary is approaching, Elliott decides that the three of them will take a trip back to their former home, New Hampshire. There they will stay at the historic Presidential Hotel and be joined by Helen and Elliott’s oldest and dearest friends for an anniversary celebration.
During their stay, Abby will come-of-age, forever changed.
Author Emily Chenoweth’s debut novel is based upon her own life experience. Like Abby, her own mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her first year of college. The following summer, her father took the family to the Mount Washington Hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to spend time with her east coast friends for the last time. Initially, Chenowith envisioned Hello Goodbye as a memoir, but the book eventually evolved into a fictional work.
Abby is young, fairly naive, and at loose ends being the only young man or woman among the group gathering at the Hotel for the anniversary party. She has had a boyfriend of sorts, Kevin, since high school, but the relationship is neither serious nor maturing. It has, rather, simply been based on convenience and the fact that Abby has not determined how to break things off with Kevin. Her ambivalence about their relationship is symptomatic of the stress that Abby is feeling, but not articulating to her father or anyone else.
So as she explores the hotel, she encounters some of the young staff members, especially a waiter named Alex. He begins leaving notes under her door inviting her to drinks, but instead of signing his name, says that they are from a secret admirer. Abby becomes convinced that the notes are from Vic, a former classmate upon whom she once had a crush. Helen had a successful career as a counselor to troubled youth, while her father is a headmaster at a private school. Vic was one of Helen’s more memorable clients. He was expelled from school, but developed a special bond with her mother because his acts of vandalism were unusual and he was a genuinely caring young man. Abby learns that he is living with his uncle while working at the hotel.
Abby’s restlessness and eagerness for new experiences, even though she is too reticent to participate fully in most, arises out of her lack of knowledge or understanding about her mother’s illness. Although she tells anyone who asks that she does not know if her mother is going to get better, it is clear that Abby suspects she will not, as demonstrated in some particularly heart-wrenching moments the two women share. Chenowith conveys the deeply complicated mother-daughter relationship with a simple look, smile, gesture or note left by Helen, replete with misspellings, for Abby. Abby is on the cusp of adulthood, trapped between the childhood in which she would love to remain with her caring, protective mother, and the world she is going to inhabit on her own after her mother departs, even though she is not fully cognizant of that reality.
Whether Helen is actually aware of her circumstances is never revealed, although she is plainly frustrated by her physical limitations. The brain tumor was discovered when she collapsed after her morning five-mile run. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation have not impeded its rampage on her ability to live and work independently. Elliott and Abby are loving caregivers who want Helen to enjoy spending time with dear old friends.
Elliott unburdens himself by revealing his wife’s fate to their friends when they arrive at the hotel. Each of them reacts differently, depending upon the nature and character of his/her relationship with Helen. As Elliott plans an elaborate anniversary party that he cannot really afford, he ponders his own future with Helen by his side. After all, they are only in their mid-40’s and this is not the time or way their marriage was supposed to end. Elliott has never envisioned himself single again, but gets little glimpses into what it might be like as he prowls the hotel alone after his wife retires in the evenings, worn out from their activities. He sincerely believed that keeping the truth about her mother’s condition from his daughter was the right choice. But now, his conviction is waning.
Chenowith’s prose is nearly lyrical, her descriptions of the manner in which the three Hansen characters face their fate heartbreakingly straight-forward, yet poignant. Contrasting Abby’s youthful beauty, vigor, and yearning for new experiences and relationships with Helen’s declining physical and mental prowess, and need for assistance with simple tasks such as putting on makeup and dressing, Chenowith conveys the deep sense of loss both characters feel, along with the discomfort that is inevitable as parents and children trade roles when the child must care for the parent.
The real power of Chenowith’s thoughtful narrative is her refusal to draw conclusions for her characters or tie the story’s loose ends up neatly with a bow. Readers should be forewarned that there really is no resolution. Rather, the book is more akin to a vignette; it is a snapshot of a specific time in the lives of three ordinary people dealing with an extraordinarily difficult situation the best way they can. Chenowith draws no conclusions about whether Elliott was right or wrong to conceal the truth about Helen’s condition. Events simply play out, leaving the reader to decide for him/herself about Elliott’s choice. And that, of course, inspires readers to consider what they would do if faced with the same dilemma. Therein lies the value in taking the trip to New Hampshire with Elliott, Helen, and Abby.