The Hansen family is throwing a party in honor of Helen and Elliott’s 20th anniversary. They’ve invited their closest family friends to the Presidential, a luxury resort in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The place is like something out of a 19th-century novel, with white linens, fine china, and maids in skirts and hats. It’s the kind of place where people dress for dinner, where they spend their abundant leisure time playing golf and tennis and simply admiring the view.
The couple’s anniversary, however, is only the surface reason for this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of lifelong friends. In reality, this will probably be the last time Helen sees her friends. She’s dying of brain cancer, but no one except Elliott knows the seriousness of the prognosis or just how little time she has left.
In addition to keeping Helen’s dire condition a secret from Helen herself, he has withheld the information from the couple’s daughter, Abby, who has just finished her first year at a small private college in Connecticut. Abby is bored with the stuffy atmosphere at the Presidential; she can’t relate to her parents’ friends and is uncomfortable around her mother, who has quickly become like a dependent, forgetful child rather than like the strong, capable woman Abby has always admired.
As the bored young lady wanders the halls and grounds of the resort, she attracts the attention of two very different young men: Alex, a waiter who is part of the disaffected preppy staff who mock the tourists and smoke pot after hours, and Vic, a former delinquent turned studious young man who has his own reasons to grieve Helen’s illness.
In less capable hands, the novel’s theme (of one woman who is on the cusp of beginning her adult life even as another woman prepares to leave it) would be trite or simplistic. Emily Chenoweth, however, shows a facility for language and a deep understanding of family dynamics as she paints her heartfelt but understated portrait of this family on the verge of loss and overwhelming change.
Chenoweth has a firm grasp on grief, beautifully capturing the bittersweet emotions of Elliott, in particular, as he simultaneously celebrates his last weeks with his wife while already mourning her passing. “Everyone else would get to say goodbye to her in the guise of a temporary parting --- vacations, after all, must end --- while he would say nothing of the kind. And then when she was gone, he would be alone, and he would not be part of this circle of friends anymore, not the way he had been; it was inevitable. So he, too, was saying goodbye in a way, because they were out of time, he and his wife and all of them.” Just as the Presidential resort celebrates a way of life long past, the Hansens’ party celebrates a life that will soon be lost, a friendship and a family that will never be the same.
By juxtaposing this loss with Abby’s romantic and sexual awakening, Chenoweth reminds readers that life --- and hope --- can flourish even in the times of greatest sorrow.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
- Publication Date: May 5, 2009
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Random House
- ISBN-10: 1400065178
- ISBN-13: 9781400065172