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August 2, 2009

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Death and acceptance

WATCHING a loved one die is excruciating. And loss, especially premature loss, quickly reveals family fissures and vulnerabilities. The resulting mess has sustained many powerful books but you'd expect "Hello Goodbye," Emily Chenoweth's tender first novel, to follow suit.

The book opens with Helen, wife of Elliott and mother of Abby, experiencing symptoms of brain cancer. The rest of the story takes place six months later, when Elliott has taken the family for a week at an exclusive New Hampshire resort. There beneath the trees, by a pool and tennis court, they will gather with friends to say hello, goodbye, before Abby returns to her sophomore year of college.

But Chenoweth has made an unexpected choice for a novel of last moments: only Elliott knows that Helen has three months to live. Helen doesn't request specifics. No one has explained the gravity to Abby.

"Surely she must wonder - surely she must look at her mother and think, 'this doesn't look good'," Elliott tells himself, "but standing in the way of Abby's comprehension were grief, anger and pure adolescent self-absorption."

Abby spends much of the week ignoring her parents in search of drama and romance, and her dalliances provide the novel's breezy second focus. Abby meets Alex, a waiter and aspiring novelist, who woos her with Neruda knockoffs and dark outings on the golf course. He kisses her and "in her chest, a box opened and something fell out, and she was that something, and she was falling."

Abby wants to like Alex, aware that she feels "almost loved" when he touches her, but she experiences a deeper connection to another young man, Vic, who knows her mother and has been through heartache of his own.

Denial, though, is a temporary state. At some point, Helen will die. In the young-romance sections, Chenoweth's affectionate style works marvelously, capturing the decadence of youth. In the face of terminal disease, her treatment feels less sincere. Helen can no longer spell; she has trouble summoning memories.

Elliott behaves surprisingly well for a man losing his wife. He politely avoids a sexual encounter with another guest. He never recoils at Helen's changing body or his new role as caretaker. Though Helen's death comes closer, "like a wave on the horizon, advancing mutely, inexorable," his responses are often easier to understand than feel.

But Chenoweth is too smart to let everyone off so easily. Abby arrives at the resort "young, wholesome, malleable," a wide-eyed virgin. It's as if she is literally wearing a fantasy of a clean entry into adulthood. It's a fantasy waiting to be dispelled.

Elliott must also face a kind of reckoning, as Abby's grief forces him into new challenges of fatherhood. Eventually, Abby learns that her mother's cancer is terminal. She casts aside youthful preoccupations, as well as her virginity.

Chenoweth leaves the family at the resort, intact, suggesting a kind of eternal togetherness. It's a generous gesture - a melancholy wish. But it, too, is a fantasy waiting to be dispelled.


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