Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Hello Goodbye
Will my mother be okay? It was a question she kept asking, and she found ways to keep being reassured. If she could close her eyes and run through a field for ten seconds without opening them, her mother would get better. If she could find three yellow flowers next to one another, if she watched the clock until it hit 3:33, if a squirrel flicked its tail, if a blue car drove by on the road, her mother would be fine.

Helen returns back one morning from a refreshing run, looking forward to her day, only to get a seizure. This sends her off to plenty of hospital tests after which it is determined that Helen has inoperable brain cancer. The doctors tells her husband, Elliot, that she has 9 months, but Helen doesn't know that yet***, since it's her hope that's holding her so far. With just 3 months left out of the original estimated 9, Elliot plans to spend their wedding anniversary at the Presidential hotel in New Hampshire with a few very close friends. To him, this is more of a goodbye trip for Helen, although she doesn't know that yet. What follows is a way for each of them - Elliot, Helen, and their teen daughter, Abby, to come to terms with Helen's illness.

*** Updated: I didn't notice this at first, but after Jill and Ti pointed out in the comments, I realized that it is weird that Helen isn't told of her time left on earth. I could understand Elliot's reasoning - he wants to keep Helen's hope alive and wants her to keep fighting. What if...? But, I do know that the doctors (most definitely in the US) wouldn't hold back that information, especially to avoid lawsuits - that would also be the hospital policy. Now that I've reflected on it, it does sound very strange and the only way I can explain it out is that the doctors probably didn't have time to spend with Helen because she was very ill. This definitely goes against what Elliot says about the doctors' reasoning.

This was a very different kind of book. It talks of a pending death due to terminal illness, but not in a depressing way. The author talks about death, and yet doesn't talk about it either, if that makes sense. It reflects the state of the characters - the illness is foremost in their minds but they try to bury it under several distractions. Isn't that how anyone tries to respond to a life-changing matter? Each character tries to address their fears and worries while still dealing with the usual yearnings of life.

I was most able to connect with Abby. It's not always that I can say that I connect with a teen, but Abby's emotions felt so realistic and vulnerable that it was hard not to relate. Seeing her mother as a shadow of her former self was stressing her out. Helen made simple spelling mistakes, was tired more often, acted childish sometimes and was so thin that her usual clothes could wrap two of her. This pained Abby a lot, but at the same time, she didn't want to acknowledge it, because then it would be more real than it is. She tries to find comfort in companionship. When a boy at the hotel starts showing interest in her, she feels special. 

Elliot on the other side, made me feel deeply for him. Elliot and Helen were just in their forties, too early for death to claim either. When Elliot is with a group of couples having fun, he enjoys the company one minute and next minute, the realization that he will be alone soon shatters him. He feels terrible about holding the whole burden of Helen's time left, but he doesn't feel up to sharing with anyone.

I loved the addition of the close friends to the story. On one hand, it livens up the story, on the other, it makes the stark contrast between Helen's family and the other families even clearer. Even though they are their closest friends, with whom they have spent many a vacation, in matters of illness and death, one is still alone. There were times when I felt there was an excess focus on the trivial matters, but I still enjoyed the character focus these sections brought about.

Emily Chenoweth
Despite the depressing matter of death, this book hardly felt depressing. Mind you, I was reading this one at a time when I was feeling pretty low myself, and yet I was able to read it without feeling depressed. A few months back, I read a memoir about a person trying to come to terms with her mother's death, and finding it a near-impossibility. Hello Goodbye is from the other side - the whole period of anticipation, and how that can still never get you ready. You start hoping for miracles, or even buying and trying out the so-called "miracle cures" that never work. Although I have never been through either experience, I felt I could understand both at a very deep level, since I have been though similar feelings because of something terrible that happened last year. I found the reactions of the characters very realistic, and it always amazed me that the person actually going through the illness-death process is the most accepting of all.

Hello Goodbye is written in a quick fast-paced style that I found easy to read anytime, anywhere. Also, the prose was split into very short chapters. I found this a plus so far as reading was concerned, but I also thought it matched the state of the characters, in which they all dwell on the same subject and yet switch topics in their head quickly.

Overall, this was a really wonderful read, one that I would recommend. I didn't love this book, but I definitely enjoyed reading it, if that is the right choice of word here. I thought there were some parts that felt a little too convenient, but I was willing to forgive those, because I was more interested in the mental/emotional journey of the characters.

I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


14 comments:

Misha said...

This sounds like such a sad read; I am relieved to hear that the book did not feel depressing.
I haven't experienced something like this, but I have seen people close to me tying to come to terms with deaths in their family.  Hello Goodbye seems like something I would really like.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I think it must take a lot of talent to write about a subject like death in a way that's not too depressing.  I have a feeling I would enjoy it.

Helen Murdoch said...

This sounds good, but it might make me just fall apart with its closeness: her name is Helen, she's in her early 40s, she has one child, a daughter... I wonder if I'd internalize it?

softdrink said...

I'm confused that the doctors told the husband, but not Helen, that she had 9 months to live. Isn't that against doctor-patient rules, or something?

Ti said...

What seems sad to me is that no one tells the wife that she only has 9 months to live. I'm not sure that could actually happen with patient privacy rules, but not knowing, even to protect a loved one seems wrong.

I am at the age now where I am losing people around me. A very close friend was diagnosed with cancer and was only given 2 months to live, and she just passed. Another friend, also given 2 months just passed and my Sister In Law, only given 4 months just passed away last week. They each knew, and as tragic as it was, they had time to make peace and spend time with loved ones. It would be horrible had they not been told.

Athira / Aths said...

You are so right! I didn't think about that because I have seen situations like this, but they were all back home in India. I know the laws here are different and now that you mention it, I am surprised Helen never knew of it.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree. I didn't think about that because I have seen situations like this, but
they were all back home in India. I know the laws here are different and
once @2a11541b331684f8a4c654bd1b9349b4:disqus mentioned it, I am surprised they didn't tell Helen about it. I can imagine Elliot thinking that he wants to protect Helen, but my experience with doctors insists that THEY will never go for that option, to avoid lawsuits. How did I miss that, after spending more than half a year dealing with doctors and insurance people for my brother's illness!

Athira / Aths said...

@428368854e57be6e02650465d06b70e7:disqus I agree. I didn't think about that because I have seen situations like this, but

they were all back home in India. I know the laws here are different and

 once @2a11541b331684f8a4c654bd1b9349b4:disqus  mentioned it, I am
surprised they didn't tell Helen about it. I can imagine Elliot thinking
that he wants to protect Helen, but my experience with doctors insists
that THEY will never go for that option, to avoid lawsuits. How did I
miss that, after spending more than half a year dealing with doctors and
insurance people for my brother's illness!

Lena said...

Thanks for sharing a great review. It sounds solemn, I don't do depressing too well. And just knowing that no one is telling her that she is terminally ill, would have my mind blowed and my temper rising. But I do like the title.

zibilee said...

It does sound as if this is a rather emotionally complex book, with a different angle than most in this vein. I think I might have to check it out and see how I feel about it. This was also a really well-crafted and thoughtful review, and I thank you for sharing it.

Essay online said...

I have been looking for this kind of book.Really find intresting and insightful. Such a truly powerful book and a beautiful testament to the impact that mere words can have!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm glad to see that this book didn't make you feel sad in spite of the heavy subject matter.  It sounds like a wonderful read for a book club of close friends!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Felicia Bass said...

Stumbled upon your blog. Sounds like an interesting story.  I could only imagine the discussions that could come from this book. Placing it on my list.

Nina Happyendings said...

Great review. I thought this would be a depressing book, but I'm glad to hear that it isn't. It sounds very powerful.