Helen Hansen has just come home from a jog when she is buffeted by an intense headache and a strange flash appears right before her eyes. When Elliott, her husband, discovers her lying prostrate on the kitchen floor, he rushes her to the hospital.
There the doctors discover a tumor stretching tentacle-like throughout her frontal lobe. The prognosis is grim; Helen has - at the most - nine months to live.
Although Elliott doesn’t reveal the full extent of the diagnosis to Abby, their teenage daughter, overnight his comfortable existence as a high school teacher is eviscerated. Elliott had imagined Helen holding his hand on his deathbed but never, ever the other way around: “he’s the smoker, the drinker; she the runner, the health freak and the eater of salads.” Regardless, both Elliott and Abby are plunged into uncharted waters as their
wife and mother seems to shrivel up and fade before their eyes.
In a fit of desperation, Elliott brings Helen back to New Hampshire where she used to live.
Here in its summer valley, ringed by the humped blue mountains, the Presidential Hotel rises up “like a marooned ocean.“ Maybe, for just a week, Elliott, Helen and Abby will be transformed by the hotel’s elegance and order. In a surprise move, Elliott has also summoned their friends to this place where they can eat, drink and reminisce.
When they leave, “they can say, for the last time, goodbye.”
Against this beautiful isolated backdrop, the Hansen family and their friends are thrust together. Helen, of course, is the most vulnerable. Wrapped in blankets, she fumbles through her illness, begging for it to go away, trying to cope with “the pinwheels of pain” that whirl behind her left ear and the cancer drugs that give her a look of soft, blurred sadness.
While Abby believes her mother when she says that things are going to get better, she gets involved with a group of hotel employees, her grief, anger, and pure adolescent self-absorption surrounding her life like a veil, invisible but complex and full of flourishes and textures.
Then there’s Elliott, who takes pleasure in lighting each fresh cigarette of the day and just can’t seem to cope with the long-established family order which has placed Abby and Helen on one side and he on the other.
Chenoweth’s supporting characters are equally important in the evolving dynamic: Eva and Ruth, Dom and Henry, and later, Neil with his British convertible and Sylvie, his juicy, flashy young wife. The presence of Vic, an old school buddy of Abby’s, also plays an crucial role, the quiet, curious young man, once a ward of Helen’s, as well as the educated Alex who showers attentions on an insecure Abby.
Essentially a tale about the powerlessness of the human animal in the face of misfortune
- “there’s nothing you could do, and yet you could not do nothing” - Hello Goodbye is remarkable for its depiction of the struggles and challenges of life. Imbued with a quiet, profound intimacy with shades of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the author fully intuits these people with their fears and insecurities as they come to terms with the power of life and the painful inevitably of death.