An Unexpected Cure for Loneliness and Grief
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I wrote Hello Beautiful more quickly than I’ve ever written anything in my life. I know this is because of when I started writing. It was April 2020, New York City was shut down because of the pandemic, and my father had just died. I was with my husband and two sons in our small Brooklyn apartment, instead of where my heart wanted to be: at my father’s side during the final days of his life. There was no physical gathering when he died, either; my siblings and I could only lean toward our computer screens while we Zoomed with our mother, trying to make her feel like we were in the same room.
I’m always grateful to be a writer, but never so much as in that moment. Unable to erase my own grief, unable to fix the hole left in my family, unable to assure my children that life would go back to normal, I sat down at my computer and started to build a new world. I walked into the story beside William Waters—each of us lonely and broken to different degrees—and we were both drawn to the noisy, fierce love of the Padavano family. The four strong-willed, inseparable sisters lit up whatever room they were in with their energy and ambitions. William needed these women in a way he didn’t fully understand, and I felt the same way. There’s a scene early in the book, when the four sisters lie together in a small bed, their limbs intertwined, and I was surprised to find that this moment alleviated some of my own loneliness. This had never happened to me while writing before; the story I was creating seemed to be matching the contours of my emotions. It was offering me not only solace but relief.
I missed my father, and so it made sense that I enjoyed writing about the girls’ father, a lovely man named Charlie whose only real similarity to my dad was that he adored his family. My father was a brusque lawyer who coached my childhood soccer teams; Charlie was an alcoholic who loved poetry. I was as shocked as the characters in the book, though, when Charlie died, but then I shook my head and thought, of course. I was mourning my own father on the page, but this time I was allowed inside the funeral home. I was able to shake hand after hand and feel the love and grief of the people who had loved this man. I was able to sit in the pews of St. Procopius with his daughters Sylvie and Julia, uncomfortable, like them, in thick tights and a somber dress. Writing these scenes was moving and satisfying; grieving a different father soothed some of my own grief, and so I stumbled forward, trying to create more of the emotional terrain I wished I were standing on in real life.
There’s a scene in which Sylvie Padavano talks to William about her father’s death, and she says, “I didn’t expect for it to be a part of everything, every minute. I didn’t know that you could lose someone, and that meant you lost so much else.” This dialogue echoes inside me, even now. I was surprised, too, that I lost my father and then found that I lost so much else. I wonder if this happened to everyone who lost a loved one during the spring of 2020. When the pandemic moved into a new phase, one that included masks and vaccines, my family was finally able to come together, but we found it unexpectedly difficult. Where the terrain between us used to be level, there were now potholes and crooked sidewalks that took us past each other instead of into one another’s arms. We were all surprised and upset; this felt like compounded loss, but upon reflection I think it makes sense. How could everything not be different? The last time we’d gathered, my father was alive and there was no public health emergency. Everything, including ourselves, had changed.
I didn’t have the power to reshape my family’s experience, but I could devote myself to doing justice to the mother, father, and sisters in Hello Beautiful. This family felt as important to me as my own, and in honor of both, I wanted to tell the story of the Padavano family as honestly and deeply as possible. I needed to try to save the broken little boy that was William Waters. I needed to see if it was possible for sisters to reunite after personal choices drove them apart. For two years, I lived in the Padavano’s world. I inhabited their house in Chicago; I gardened with their mother in their backyard; I bridged the sisters’ personal heartbreaks. Inside the book, I was able to be with family that wasn’t my own family in a way that felt true. I vibrated with the same question, every time I sat down to write: Is everything going to be okay?
Ann Napolitano is the author of Hello Beautiful, an Oprah's Book Club selection, and Dear Edward, which was published in 2020 and adapted for an Apple TV+ series. Her 2011 novel A Good Hard Look is a national bestseller, and Within Arm's Reach was adapted for theater.
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