Cancer, Cocktails, and Sexual Lust
A knowing story of impending death set at an opulent New England hotel, Emily Chenoweth’s debut, Hello Goodbye, is an autobiographical novel that shakes up the terminal-illness genre like a dry martini.
Summer’s here, and have I got just the thing for your beach bag: a lightly plotted novel about a mother dying of cancer. Let me at it, right? Well—why not? Emily Chenoweth’s artfully composed debut is a novel for all seasons, a downer for sure (how could it not be?) but one that reads at a clip and offers a quietly moving portrait of impending loss.
Quick personal note: Among its many achievements, Hello Goodbye defeated a strain of cynicism I’ve been carrying around since my days in a graduate writing program. There, fictional characters succumbed to cancer by the droves. Reading all those stories, I began thinking of cancer as little more than a literary device, a form of short-order gravitas for otherwise flyweight storytelling. Chenoweth has her own MFA (from Columbia), so I picked up her novel in a skeptical mood.
“At the Presidential Hotel, long naps were encouraged, cocktails were served on the veranda in the afternoons, and men were expected to wear jackets after six.”
It didn’t last. From its earliest pages, Hello Goodbye is convincing and authentic. Chenoweth clearly knows her way around grief and understands the countervailing emotions it inspires (sociability, prickly egotism, sexual need). I wasn’t immediately aware that this sad story of Elliott, Helen, and 18-year-old Abby Hansen is near-autobiography—Chenoweth lost her mother to brain cancer as a sophomore in college—but the fact came as no surprise. The novel has a calm authority, a wisdom that feels lived-in and hard-earned.
It also happens to have a divertingly picturesque setting: the Presidential Hotel, a mammoth fin-de-siècle retreat in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “The best hotel in New Hampshire,” Elliott Hansen proudly says on arrival there with his daughter and cancer-stricken wife. It’s August 1990 and he’s planned a weeklong family vacation at this grand place, culminating in a 20th wedding-anniversary party to which he has invited a small group of longtime friends. He can’t really afford it all, but his wife only has three more months to live (a prognosis he’s keeping from her and his daughter), and a little luxurious distraction seems in order. “At the Presidential Hotel, long naps were encouraged, cocktails were served on the veranda in the afternoons, and men were expected to wear jackets after six. There was golf and horseback riding, dance lessons and tennis, and if his wife, in her failing health, could no longer enjoy these activities, she could at least watch them being enjoyed as she rested in a chaise longue by a heated blue pool.”
Chenoweth writes extremely well, vividly capturing the columned verandas, ornate ballrooms, and neat lawns of the hotel in unshowy, lucid prose. She also capably cycles through all three family members’ points of view. I was impressed by her treatment of Helen—helpless and gently childlike, beset by memory lapses and cognitive slipups. On the other hand, I sensed a bit too much authorial affection for Elliott. He smokes and likes his Tanqueray, but overall he’s so proper, so decent a fellow that his sections turn inert, a touch too respectful.
Not so Abby—the most flawed, complex character here, and the emotional center of the novel. At 18, she’s a mess: petty and rebellious, deeply needy, caught at a bewildering intersection of grief and sexual desire. She wants to tend to her mother but, as it happens, the Presidential is staffed with preppy, good-looking boys. One of them, Alex, gets her tipsy, stoned, and brags about what he’s reading: Melville, Proust and DeLillo (“ Libra. Not his best,” he says, with amusing pretension). There’s another candidate for her affection, a rough-around-the-edges employee named Vic. Abby’s longing for each is credible—even if the romantic subplot plays out in a predictable way.
The novel is not note-perfect—the crew of family friends that arrive feel somewhat interchangeable, and there’s a misstep near the end, a bit of heavy-handed symbolism I wished Chenoweth had resisted (involving a peacock—you’ll know it when you read it). Still, Hello Goodbye is impressively tuned, a death-haunted story that veers well away from sentiment. The ending is no surprise, but such is Chenoweth’s skill that it hits you hard all the same.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.