The Washington Post
A tender tearjerker of family love, loss
In her piercingly tender new novel, “Hello Beautiful,” best-selling author Ann Napolitano catalogues the multitudes of love and hurt that families contain, and lays bare their powers to both damage and heal. If that description echoes the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose work Napolitano quotes in her epigraph, it also reflects her own expansive literary
spirit — a bracing yet restorative sensibility that managed to render cathartic the seemingly unbearable pain embedded in her previous book, “Dear Edward.” Now being dramatized on Apple TV Plus, that story recounts the physical and psychological recovery of the 12-year-old title character who boards a jetliner with his family and becomes the flight’s sole survivor.
Like its predecessor, “Hello Beautiful” will make you weep buckets because you come to care so deeply about the characters and their fates. At its center is another ailing soul, the emotionally hobbled William Waters. He grows up with no memory of his sister, Caroline, a lovable redhead who died at age 3 when he was a mere 6 days old. Her absence engulfs his early years, her death having left his parents emotionally frozen and unable, or unwilling, to forge even a cursory connection with their remaining child.
Overlooked and neglected at home, William’s only solace becomes his love of basketball. The sole place he feels comfortable is a court with a hoop, and his social contacts are mostly limited to his school teammates, who watch with amazement as he reaches the towering height of 6-foot-7. When the sports scholarship he earns to Northwestern University allows him to leave his lonely home for the Chicago area, his parents bid him farewell, seeming not to care whether they ever see him again.
He arrives on campus insecure, awkward and lost. He’s as little able to comprehend the inner hollowness and guilt he has struggled with for as long as he can remember as he is to imagine a future beyond the basketball court. For a time, his spot on the varsity team’s starting lineup keeps him afloat. So does a fiancee who tows him along without his realizing that their destinations aren’t necessarily compatible. But by the time a severe knee injury sidelines him, he has already begun to sink. After playing the game he knew by the rules and routines that life had presented him, he finds that he’s drowning. There is no game left for him to play, no purpose in trying to pivot on his wounded knee and search for something else.
Napolitano charts his descent with aching precision. She also puts in place two disparate teams to help him: a stolid group of basketball jocks, captained by Kent and Arash, who become his true brothers; and the quirky Padavano sisters, who grow into his family.
He meets Julia, the oldest sister, in a college history class, and she soon introduces him to her three siblings. At first, he finds them indistinguishable, each sporting the same unruly curly hair, and in person, as in old photos, looking “deeply similar, like they were four different versions of the same person.”
Only on closer acquaintance does William begin to discern their differences. Charming and energetic, Julia is also bossy, controlling and ambitious. Sylvie is younger than Julia by 10 months and is her closest confidante, but she is contrastingly soft-spoken, bookish (she works at the local library to put herself through college) and romantic, dreaming of a perfect soul mate even as she makes out with random boys in the library stacks. The two youngest siblings are decidedly nonidentical twins: Cecilia, a budding artist and mural painter who becomes a single mother at 17, and the nurturing Emeline, who “kept her hands free in order to be helpful or to pick up and soothe a neighborhood child.”
Over the course of three decades, the siblings will mature and change, and their seemingly solid sisterhood will be repeatedly challenged. Yet they always remain recognizable, their flaws and limits as deeply rooted as their capacity for kindness and compassion. Even so, plot coincidences can pile up along the way, and the Padavanos themselves comment on the soap-opera twists that discomfort and reconfigure their relationships. Countering that, Napolitano incorporates knowledgeable interludes about basketball history and strategy throughout her novel.
Napolitano emphasizes the sisters’ fondness for likening themselves to the four heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” But the siblings put me more in mind of the unconventional families Anne Tyler often portrays in her novels. Like Tyler’s characters, who can sometimes hardly bear to go beyond the comfort zone of their Baltimore neighborhood, the Padavanos stay mostly in Pilsen, their beloved working-class corner of Chicago. Both novelists also share a fondness for oddball details, such as mother Rose Padavano’s idiosyncratic gardening gear, which consists of a baseball catcher’s uniform and a flamboyant sombrero. Whitman’s encompassing vision of life and death also wafts through the novel, courtesy of favorite lines quoted by Rose’s ne’er-do-well husband, Charlie.
But Napolitano’s voice is her own. Like her deeply felt characters, she compels us to contemplate the complex tapestry of family love that can, despite grief and loss, still knit us together. She helps us see ourselves — and each other — whole.
Napolitano compels us to contemplate the complex tapestry of family love that can, despite grief and loss, still knit us together.