Review by Walter Cummins
The pages of Ethan Joella’s A Little Hope abound in death and loss. The novel, which opens with the question of whether a central character will survive multiple myeloma, includes other deaths that occur while this one pends, and it reveals how people are still haunted by deaths that took place in the past. But the losses go beyond that of mortality. They include wasted opportunities, the unfulfilled potential of abilities and possibilities of love. And yet, despite the pain displayed by almost every character, this is not a depressing novel because the people connected in a small community have not given up even as they doubt and grieve.
The fact that many in the town of Wharton, Connecticut, share personal heartache serves as a strength of the novel, providing unity. In the hands of another writer, this confluence of grief might have become excess, but Joella gives depth to his characters by making each experience distinctive and convincing. The novel is enriched through its illumination of a commonality.
This mingling of multiple characters creates a commentary on connections within a community. The people in Wharton know others in the town, their closeness depending on the nature of their associations. Some are casual, merely customers in a business or acquaintances met at a gathering. Others have a close and intimate history. As the stories develop, existing relationships deepen, and new ones emerge. The situations of the novel’s characters become more complex as their ties evolve.
The frame story for the whole novel occurs in the opening section when Greg Tyler is diagnosed with multiple myeloma. The question of whether he will live or die pends until the final page. He and his wife, Freddie, serve as the starting point for the emergence of others in the community. Freddie, who has had some successes as a serious writer, earns a living as a seamstress for Darcy’s dry-cleaning business. Darcy is a widow still grieving her husband after many years. Her daughter is settled in marriage with a child; but her son, Luke, is a burden, his musical talent wasted by addiction. Luke can’t get over the failure of his youthful love for Ginger Lord, now a veterinarian visiting Wilton to attend a friend’s wedding, for which Freddie is altering bridesmaids’ dresses. Back home in a familiar setting, Ginger regrets the collapse of her romance with Luke.
Greg’s boss, Alex, and his wife, Kay, figure prominently. Greg has been a surrogate son, taking the place of an adolescent son killed when a truck hit his bike. Both Alex and Kay have spent the years since their son’s death haunted by missing all that they were robbed of. Once these central characters have been introduced, others enter the novel through them. The growing linkages of characters could be diagrammed like a family tree with Greg and Freddie at the top, the others branching off them.
With attention given to the complications of so many people, A Little Hope can be considered a novel in stories, but that category usually refers to a group of related pieces, each with its own resolution. In A Little Hope, the episode shifts from character to character depict a step in a life process, ongoing developments until the novel’s multiple conclusions, the various ways in which the characters reach an outcome to their pending uncertainties. The method is similar to that of multi-character, multi-plot dramas like Downton Abbey that juggle the issues of a group of characters, cutting back and forth episode by episode to advance the situations of each.
The creative burden for the writer using this approach is to juggle a group of equally important characters, each with compelling personal story that coheres with that of the others for a larger significance. Joella succeeds.
What happens to these people is a particular variation of human circumstances in any town or neighborhood—coping with death and dying, facing disappointments, falling in love, falling out of love, confronting personality tensions, craving life to be better, hoping to find an answer. Fulfillment is hardly guaranteed. Whether it will occur becomes the source of dramatic tensions as the stories play off each other.
Fortunately, A Little Hope gives an urgency to each character’s dilemmas and demonstrates that, although the personal issue is singular for the person facing it, human drama is not isolated in a community. What affects one person touches many. Caring pervades.