An understated debut novel of great beauty and power about a vibrant woman who contracts terminal brain cancer.
It begins with a typical day in the life of Helen: She comes in from her morning run, makes coffee, works on her grocery list—and then experiences an exploding light and “a great wonder of anguish.” From this moment, her life changes irrevocably. After a grueling course of chemotherapy and radiation, her husband Elliott, headmaster at a school in New Hampshire, arranges a visit to a resort hotel where they will celebrate their 20th anniversary with old friends. Also on this retreat—one can scarcely call it a vacation—is Abby, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, who hasn’t been told that her mother’s illness is terminal. Chenoweth adopts an interesting narrative technique. While Helen is always the central figure, we spend much time away from her and in the consciousness of her family and friends. We meet Dom, still in love with Helen after 15 or more years of friendship, and Neil, whose “new” wife Sylvie is too bohemian to fit in with this staid older crowd. We see Elliott’s anguish and his attenuated ability to comfort his wife and Abby’s tentativeness as she emerges from the shelter provided by her parents and partially glimpses the seriousness of her mother’s condition—all while we witness Helen’s dignity in the face of debilitation, her efforts to remain cheerful both for her sake and for her family and friends. The novel ends with Helen’s moving epiphany: “The world is beautiful, and she is so glad she has seen it.”
Heartbreaking yet unsentimental.