A Little Hope, Ethan Joella’s debut novel, is about the lives of a dozen or so ordinary people who live in smalltown East Coast America. By helicopter over Connecticut ‘you wouldn’t notice Wharton right away’. Yet the problems its inhabitants face are universal.
There is the seemingly American Dream family – Greg, Freddie, Addie the daughter and Wizard the dog. In line with the novel’s themes of ‘hurt’ and ‘hope’, Greg develops an aggressive blood cancer and is fighting for his life. Chemo and radiotherapy weaken him; ginger ale tastes like metallic fizz and the side-effects diminish his resolve.
Freddie helps out as a seamstress at Crowley Cleaners, which Darcy Crowley established after her husband Van’s death. Dying, attached to wires and tubes, Van scribbled ‘Hurts’ on a piece of paper. His son Luke, whose life hurts, as he subsequently confesses to his mother, reads it and marks it.
Greg’s employer Alex Lionel, who values Greg like a son, has his own secrets that haunt and hurt him and his wife Kay. The interconnection of characters, the emotional entanglements of their relationships and links to the past all weave the fabric of this fable. If there is a solution to life’s difficulties and disappointments, it’s hope, with the expectation of fulfilment.
Joella writes sensitively about the domestic scene and his characters are closely observed, the men often defined by their aftershave: Greg wears a cologne called ‘Gray Flannel’; his boss’s ‘smells like a country club. Like brandy and good soap’. Luke imagines that Darcy would speak to his hippy girlfriend Hannah – whose hair ends are dipped in pink – using ‘her awkward voice, the way one talks to a foreigner or an old person’. A friend, Suzette, has doubts about her forthcoming marriage and goes into ‘full nail-biting mode’. Another, Ginger, qualifies as a vet and escapes Wharton’s suburbs; but ‘since she set up practice in Georgia, she has felt like she’s at an extended sleepover at a friend’s house’.
The scene is solid, suburban middle-class, recognisable by the houses ‘with a basketball hoop in the driveway’. The analysis of personal feelings recalls Elisabeth Strout. Joella is a serious, talented writer and one to watch.
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