"Hello Beautiful" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
“Hello Beautiful,” by Ann Napolitano, is a heartfelt novel about four Chicago sisters and a young man who comes into their lives as a college student. This absorbing story is thought-provoking from first page to last, a book to be treasured, peopled with dear, identifiable characters you’ll grow to love and recall with fondness.
In 1960, William becomes an only child after the death of his older sister, who dies at age three while William’s mother is giving birth to him. William’s parents are wounded and show him no interest or affection in childhood and beyond. To fill the gap of his abandonment, William plays basketball, a sport he eventually excels in—his success, in part, attributed to his 6’7” frame.
At a college game, William dazzles a young woman with his good looks and expertise. It isn’t long before Julia Padavano invites William to her home to meet her three younger sisters and parents, Charlie and Rose. The Italian brood hails from a working class, immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. But William’s parents, from Boston, are affluent, and Julia worries William might feel put off by the Padavano’s economic standing and lively, boisterous ways.
That’s not the case. William embraces Julia’s sisters—finding in the Padavanos the family he’s always desired. Julia is the oldest, the controller and fixer, followed closely in age by Sylvie, an avid reader who works at the library, kissing this boy and that in the stacks as she endeavors to find her one true love. Twins Emeline and Cecelia are individuals in their own right, Emeline taking a path none of the girls could have foreseen, while Cecelia discovers she has a gift for painting. The four sisters frequently compare themselves to characters in "Little Women."
Though the girls’ parents, Charlie and Rose, love each other, they’re poles apart. Charlie is warm and kind to his daughters, using the phrase “Hello Beautiful” when referring to Sylvie, and often spouting poetry. Rose is hardboiled, a died-in-the-wool Catholic who wants her daughters to be well educated and marry men with drive, unlike Charlie, a dreamer who drinks a bit. When William and Julia get engaged, Rose is thrilled when Julia announces that William is going to be a professor, a vocation Julia handpicks for him.
Julia is strong minded and William is passive, a young man who has a piece missing emotionally—a husband who caves at Julia’s desire to have a child, an effort on Julia’s part to set things right in the Padavano family after one of the sisters gets pregnant out of wedlock and an unexpected death shakes them all to their core. These events are the first of many challenges the Padavanos face as their strong bonds grow strained, and their loyalty frays over three decades—time that allows readers to get to know the sisters and their offspring.
As we walk the walk with the Padavanos, we celebrate their ordinary times and suffer through their trials with empathy in a novel rife with meaningful passages—sheer perfection as Napolitano writes of family, birth, death, love, joy and sorrow. “Hello Beautiful” is a book you’ll want to buy for a reread or gift to a special friend. It a marvelous story about family and the heartbreak that occurs when disagreements separate one from the other, precious time together forever lost.