Following on the heels of her bestselling third novel, Dear Edward (a 10-episode adaptation was recently released on Apple TV+), Ann Napolitano offers a lively homage to Little Women with Hello Beautiful. Chronicling the lives of the four Chicago-based Padavano sisters and one of their suitors, this sprawling drama stretches from 1960 through 2008, tracing the arc of their family dynamics, including the ties that forever bind them as well as circumstances and betrayals that tear them apart. Like Little Women, Hello Beautiful also thoughtfully examines the comforts and challenges of home life, work and romantic love, but with a distinctly modern perspective.
The novel begins with William Waters, whose life has been defined by the death of his 3-year-old sister just days after his birth. The tragedy casts a permanent pall over his parents’ days, and they ignore William thereafter—to a perhaps unbelievable degree. As William realizes, “They’d only ever had one child, and it wasn’t him.” Basketball becomes his primary source of stability, and he leaves his suburban Boston home after earning a basketball scholarship to Northwestern University. At school, he meets self-assured, determined Julia Padavano, who decides during their first conversation that he’s the one for her.
The two marry, and slowly but surely, William becomes part of the Padavano clan, which also includes long-suffering mother Rose, goodhearted father Charlie and Julia’s three sisters: artistic Cecelia and nurturing Emeline, who are twins, and literary Sylvie, who kisses boys in the library stacks while waiting for a “once-in-a-century love affair.” Julia repeatedly warns Sylvie about her idealism: “The kind of love you’re looking for is made up,” she says. “The idea of love in those books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina—is that it’s a force that obliterates you. They’re all tragedies, Sylvie. Think about it; those novels all end with despair, or death.”
Julia’s prophecy proves to be apt, with slow-simmering events reaching a shocking culmination as a benign moment turns “dangerous, like a shining dagger.” The family is torn apart in dramatic fashion, despite the fact that the four sisters “had beat with one heart for most of their lives.”
As Napolitano switches narrators throughout the book, readers become fully enmeshed in the sprawling lives of her characters, watching them change and grow over decades. They’re a likable bunch, and as with real friends and family, readers may sometimes want to intervene, or at least offer some advice, as they make life-altering decisions. Napolitano goes to great lengths to explain and justify her characters’ choices—at times, at the expense of action and dialogue. Still, William and the Padavano sisters remain memorable, and Napolitano’s sharp plotting provides a gripping conclusion that radiates love and kindness, the sort you wish that all feuding families might find their way to.
This bighearted domestic novel reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as Napolitano examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.