CBR Passport – new to me author (which I think makes this my 6th official CBR passport author that I’ve counted, but in reality the 13th or 14th new author I’ve read this year, I might have to go back and do some updated accounting).
I will never turn down an homage to Little Women. Although I have 5 sisters, giving us two extra girls to account for, we loved the act of assigning ourselves a character. On TV, there’s Golden Girls, Sex and the City, Sisters – but nothing compared to the original conception of four women of different temperaments but equal strength. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – because there were too many of us, we came to agree that more than one of us might be Jo (because really, don’t we all want to be Jo?). Much like the sisters in this novel, no one really wanted to be Beth, nor did anyone want to seriously confront the fact that one of us would have to one day be the first to go.
Hello Beautiful doesn’t start with the girls, though. Each chapter alternates perspectives in a certain period of time, and we begin this novel with the story of William. I’ve already returned by copy to the library, so I can’t quote faithfully, but the opening lines offer a succinct way to express tragedy – William was not an only child for the first few days of his life. The death of his older sister (who was just a toddler, who was beautiful and then suddenly sick and then gone) will overshadow his entire life. His parents are unable to fully process their grief, and William grows up like a shadow in his own home – coughing in closets to spare his parents the pain of hearing the sounds of childhood illness, speaking rarely and being spoken to even less. When he leaves for college, he does so with the knowledge that he will never see his parents again.
William’s one joy is basketball. As a child, the basketball court was a place where he could fall into friendships, or at least connect with other people briefly. After a sudden growth spurt, he finds himself with the height that befits a basketball player, which is lucky for him. He eventually manages to get a scholarship to Northwestern University in the early 1980s. And it is there that he meets Julia Padovano, a curly-haired girl who is sure of herself and wiling to pursue what she wants. And when she meets William, she is convinced what she wants is him. She brings her three sisters (slightly younger Sylvia, and twins Cecelia and Emeline) to one of William’s basketball games, and then brings him home. Their family accepts William whole heartedly.
The four girls live in a loving, slightly chaotic home in Chicago. Their father, Charlie Padovano, is a doting father who loves poetry and beer. He often drinks too much, and does not necessarily provide for the family financially – but he loves them deeply, and he always finds a way to help others. Their mother, Rose, is slightly more emotionally distant. A deeply religious woman, she prefers her garden to the literary life her husband longs to live. She identifies strongly with her daughter Julia, whose no-nonsense manner and work ethic more closely align with her own. Emeline also shares the strong instinct towards care-taking, quietly observing the world and showing up to provide what is needed. Sylvia identifies more with her father – she works in a library, where her hobbies include selecting boys and men to kiss for exactly 90 seconds in the shelves. Sylvia wants to live a romantic life – she believes in one great love or nothing. Cecelia, the artist, also wants a life of freedom and love.
Soon, William and Julia are married, but not long after their marriage life shifts incredibly for the Padovano family. Babies are born, family members move, and die, and life shifts over and over again. This extended family endures heart break time and again, suffering in ways none of them could have imagined, and also still managing to find joy and solace in their own company – sometimes in the most unexpected of places.
The writing is beautiful, and I appreciated the depth of every character. I was not very happy with one of the central relationships, and I often disliked the way that all of these strong women bent over backwards many times over for William, about whom I had very mixed feelings. But the core of the book was the relationships between the sisters, and that felt true to me. These women loved each other first and always. Even when I strongly disagreed with the decisions of the characters, I could appreciate their arc, which I think is all I can ask of a book.