- The novel is a family drama that spans four decades and follows the lives of William Waters and Julia Padavano, who meet in college and fall in love, but face challenges and conflicts due to their different personalities, goals, and expectations.
- The novel also focuses on the perspectives of their nieces and nephews, who deal with their own issues, such as parental abandonment, alcoholism, adoption, and infertility, and try to understand their parents’ choices and mistakes.
- The novel is a homage to Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, and explores the themes of love, loss, identity, and forgiveness, as the family members reconcile with each other and find new ways to heal.
Hello Beautiful (2023) is a tale of love, family, and sisterhood. It centers on William Waters, who meets and marries the ambitious, practical Julia Padovano while they are both still in college. Julia is one of four girls in a close knit Italian-American family, whose storybook lives at first seem like a fantasy to William. But soon enough, life’s many obstacles catch up with the Padovanos, and William is drawn deep into their lives, loves, conflicts, and griefs.
Introduction: A warm, witty tale of sisterhood.
Table of Contents
Meet the Padovano sisters. Julia, the eldest, is headstrong, ambitious, and pragmatic. Sylvie, the middle sister, nurtures dreams of passionate love affairs, the kind she reads about in the nineteenth-century novels she loves so much. The two youngest, Cecelia and Emeline, are twins: Cecelia is artistic, Emeline, quiet and nurturing. They share everything with each other. And when William Waters, a soft-spoken college basketball player, is drawn into their lives after becoming engaged to Julia, they share everything with him, too.
But within months of Julia and Willam’s wedding, the family will be rocked by an unplanned pregnancy and an unexpected death. And the plans the sisters have so carefully laid out for their lives are quickly thrown into disarray.
Since its release, this wise and tender-hearted story has captivated readers, rocketing up the New York Times Bestseller list, and winning the Oprah’s Book Club seal of approval. So, if you’d like to find out for yourself why everyone is falling in love with the Padovano girls, look no farther than this summary.
Four sisters, one secret
William Waters can’t remember having been part of a happy family, though from the photos and home movies he’s seen, he suspects he was – for exactly six days. In 1960, six days after he was born, his older sister Caroline died from a fever, aged three. His parents were grief-stricken and, in their grief, became distant and resentful of William’s presence. He grew up feeling like an intruder on his parents’ sadness. William was so used to being ignored that when a high school basketball coach noticed his talent, William was elated – not so much by the thought that he might have a future in basketball as by the sensation of being seen – really seen – by an adult for the first time in his life.
William ends up winning a basketball scholarship to Chicago’s Northwestern University. As he leaves, he shakes his father’s hand in farewell, and is visited by the feeling that he may never see his parents again – that, in fact, in their eyes, his parents had only ever had one child, and that child wasn’t him.
In this way, college is both the end of one family and the beginning of another. Because once William arrives at Northwestern, someone else soon takes notice of him as well. Julia Padovano is a conscientious, if – in William’s first impressions – overly talkative student in the same history class as William. She has been watching William in class and she likes what she sees.
Julia has a plan for college. In fact, she has a plan for almost everything in her life, and in the lives of her three sisters. Specifically, in college she plans to meet someone who is agreeable, cautious, and hard-working. Basically, someone who is the opposite of her romantic, alcoholic father, Charlie, who has never provided his family with financial or emotional security. Julia and this hypothetical man will marry, set up a stable household, and from this foundation, they will work to pull her mother and sisters up with them. And William Waters seems to be just who Julia is looking for.
Unlike Julia, William has never given much thought to his future. He likes playing basketball – so he figures he might as well just keep doing that. It doesn’t occur to him that he might need a firmer plan, until he is speaking with his friend and teammate Kent. Kent, a Black man and the team’s superstar, reveals he plans to be a doctor. William realizes he needs a back-up plan outside of basketball, but can’t think of any.
One day after class, Julia gives William her number, and tells him she will see him at his next basketball game. He realizes Julia has decided they’re going steady. He’s not unhappy about this fact.
Soon after, Julia brings William home to meet her family. Her mother Rose is in the garden, which is full of blooming flowers. Her father Charlie is inside. After decades of an increasingly unsatisfying marriage, the two have come to a tacit arrangement – Rose gets the garden, Charlie gets the inside of the house, and their two paths cross as infrequently as possible. Sylvie is the second-oldest Padovano girl. She is a senior in high school, a hopelessly romantic assistant librarian. Her job at the library means she is never short of novels depicting turbulent, passionate love affairs. The library stacks also offer the perfect location for kissing the various male seniors who are smitten with her. Sylvie imposes a 90-second limit on their make-out sessions. She doesn’t want to get attached to any of these boys and views her precisely-timed clinches with them as rehearsals for the great love that will eventually define her life. Cecelia and Emeline, the youngest two sisters, are twins. Emeline is nurturing and introverted. Cecelia is artistic, and the more outgoing of the two. They act as their own unit, separate from the family, while still being close to their sisters.
William’s world soon crumbles when he suffers a knee injury that prevents him from pursuing a career in basketball. The truth is, he’s already admitted to himself that – injury or not – he is talented, but not talented enough to go pro. But he hasn’t formulated any kind of back-up plan, and doesn’t know where to start. Luckily, Julia steps in. She has a plan. William loves history; why not go to grad school, then become a professor? William agrees. And, for good measure, he proposes to Julia. She accepts happily, but she isn’t surprised – this engagement had always been part of her plan.
On the day of William and Julia’s wedding, Sylvie finds Cecelia in a quiet mood. Cecelia asks Sylvie if she can tell her a secret – and she reveals that she’s pregnant.
When Cecelia then tells her parents, Rose is furious. She makes it clear Cecelia is not welcome in the family home anymore, and Cecelia moves in with a neighbor. Julia, who has been on her honeymoon, is the last to find out. She, too, feels aggrieved. This was not part of her plan – she was supposed to have a baby first. But the sisters all pull together around Cecelia, and when she goes into labor, at only 17 years old, it is Julia she asks for in the delivery room. Defying his wife’s wishes, Charlie Padovano comes to visit Cecelia and her new baby girl, Izzy, in hospital. He is smitten. As he leaves the room and walks down the hospital corridor, his heart gives out – and he collapses and dies.
The author of Hello Beautiful, Ann Napolitano, has said that her inspiration for the Padovano girls is another set of famous literary siblings, the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s classic nineteenth-century novel Little Women. Readers familiar with the source text will easily be able to map the Padovanos onto the Marches: determined, pragmatic Julia is similar to Meg; romantic bookworm Sylvie takes after Jo; gentle Emeline is like Beth; and volatile, artistic Cecelia is close in personality to Amy. Charlie Padovano is devoted to the writing of American transcendentalist thinker and poet Walt Whitman. When he meets his newborn granddaughter Izzy in hospital, he quotes Whitman: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This is perhaps a nod to Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, who was himself part of the transcendentalist movement and, like Charlie, reputedly dreamy, impractical, and unreliable.
A family comes unstitched
In the wake of Charlie’s death, Sylvie remarks that she feels everyone in her family – and her family as a whole – has become unstitched. The ways in which they unravel, and the ways in which they sew themselves back together, are very different.
Rose, already angry at Cecelia, now blames her youngest daughter for Charlie’s death. When Cecelia’s sisters rally around her, a rift grows between the Padovano girls and their mother. Later, Rose will announce that she is moving to Florida. There is nothing left for her in Chicago anymore.
Julia, still somewhat to plan, falls pregnant shortly after Charlie’s funeral. She is elated at the prospect of motherhood, but the pregnancy brings worries. Namely, she is worried about money, and William’s capacity to provide it for the family. He seems to be struggling with the demands of graduate school and teaching. He is, at least, writing a book, which Julia believes will further his academic career.
Sylvie stays with William and Julia. Julia asks her to read William’s book manuscript. It is not the academic treatise Sylvie expects. It is a history of basketball, littered with meandering, personal footnotes. As Sylvie reads it she wonders if Julia has made a mistake marrying William. The book displays all the qualities – dreaminess, doubt – that Julia loathes. On the other hand, Sylvie begins to feel closer to William as she works through his manuscript.
A few months later, Julia and William’s baby Alice is born. But not long after, William and Sylvie find themselves sitting outside on a bench at night, talking into the evening. A romantic charge passes between them – neither acts on it, but Sylvie decides to move out immediately.
From there, things really start to fall apart for William. While Julia is energized by parenthood, William is overwhelmed. Memories of his own traumatic childhood crash into his present thoughts. One day, Julia calls William at work, only for the receptionist to tell her that William hadn’t shown up to teach his classes for the last three weeks. When she confronts him, William tells her he needs to leave the marriage – Julia and Alice will be better off without him. He walks out the door.
When Sylvie and Kent, William’s friend and former teammate, hear that William has left, they are immediately concerned and raise a search party. They find William late that night. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to drown himself in Lake Michigan. When the ambulance arrives, Sylvie pretends to be William’s wife, so she can travel with him. She keeps up this pretense for months as William is treated in the hospital’s psychiatric ward – this is easy to do, because his real wife, Julia, refuses to visit. She is furious at William for abandoning her and Alice. She thinks often of her father, who used to call her his “little rocket” until she married William. She realizes now that her father wanted more for her than marriage and motherhood. Acting on this revelation, she takes a six-month job contract in New York, bringing Alice with her.
As William slowly recovers, with Sylvie’s support, Emeline makes a surprising confession. She too has felt as depressed as William. She has been keeping something to herself, and the secret has taken a huge toll on her mental health. She is a lesbian, she tells her sisters, and she is in love with a colleague at the daycare center where she works.
When Julia leaves for New York, each of the sisters is devastated – they have lost their father, their mother has left them, and now their oldest sister is leaving, too. Nevertheless, the three remaining sisters hold a Christmas eve party. They also invite William, whom they still view as one of the family. At the end of the party, Sylvie privately confesses to William that she is in love with him, and the two kiss.
Hello Beautiful itself is told from multiple perspectives, giving the reader overlapping and often contrasting views of the same events. In this way we learn, long before it is apparent to Julia, that William is teetering on the brink of a devastating depression. And, in the chapters narrated from Sylvie’s point of view, we see all the ways in which she finds herself increasingly drawn toward her brother-in-law, while for William, coming out of a depressive fog, it is a revelation to learn that Sylvie is in love with him.
Life goes on, at a distance
Once Sylvie and William have admitted they have feelings for each other, they fall in love hard and fast. They spend every moment they can together. Sylvie tells William that their relationship feels to her like a house with no walls, or a door, or a roof – all those things have been knocked down, and she is just realizing she never needed them anyway. But while her love for William feels filled with limitless potential, the pair are operating under serious constraints. Specifically, they have told no-one – not even Syvlie’s sisters – that they are seeing each other. It is WIlliam’s friend Kent, now a doctor and in love himself, who persuades them that they are living a half-life. After William’s depression, Kent reminds them, it is too dangerous to live a life not fully on his own terms. So, they break the news to their friends and family.
Cecelia and Emeline are shocked at the news. They are doubtful that William, so recently recovered from his breakdown, is able to make good romantic choices. They fear that this news will drive Julia away from the family forever. Julia is the one person Sylvie doesn’t tell. After months of cool relations between Sylvie and the twins, Cecelia and Emeline decide they are ready to accept the relationship – they can see how happy and alive Sylvie feels. Emeline then flies to New York to break the news to Julia.
Julia has embraced her life as a divorcee and single mother. She is performing well at work and impressing her boss. But she misses her sisters, and when Emeline visits, feels herself craving the warmth and familiarity of family. But at the end of her visit, when Emeline tells Julia about Sylvie and William, Julia’s feeling changes to that of betrayal. When Emeline leaves, Julia vows never to rely on her sisters for comfort or affection again. So when she is offered a promotion that will see her based permanently in New York, she takes it. She communicates with her sisters through postcards, but she never speaks with Sylvie.
Back in Chicago, life slowly moves on. Emeline, her partner Josie, and Cecelia all move in together. William decides to train as a sports physiotherapist. Sylvie and William marry. With time, William’s life begins to feel almost perfect – but sometimes, watching young kids playing basketball, he aches for his own daughter, Alice.
When Alice is five, Julia tells her that her father died in a car accident. For years afterwards, Alice is gripped with a fear of cars. When she is in middle school, she discovers an envelope full of photographs in Julia’s dresser. The pictures show her aunts. She begins asking questions about her mother’s life in Chicago.
Years pass. Sylvie becomes the head librarian in the library where she once worked shelving books. William works for the Chicago Bulls. Cecelia is a successful mural painter. Emeline and Josie have now bought the house next door to Cecelia’s. They foster babies born to drug-addicted parents. Alice, now well over six feet tall just like her father, goes off to college at Boston University. When her mother comes to visit, she notices Alice has decorated her wall with pictures of Cecelia’s murals. The murals show strong women – some drawn from history, others anonymous. Among the women she notices the faces of her sisters, her niece, her daughter, and herself.
Taking a look outward on the lives of the Padovano girls, we see that although they were raised in a strict Italian-Catholic household, where chaste, feminine women saints were often held up as behavioral examples, the sisters go on to lead unconventional lives. Julia is, radically for the time, a divorced mother making her way up the corporate ladder. Cecelia, too, is a single mother – the living arrangement she comes to with Emeline and her partner, challenges the norms of the nuclear family, but is shown to be a nurturing, functional household. In the murals she paints, Cecelia often repurposes the saints she learned about as a child, depicting them as empowered and progressive icons of womanhood.
An ending of sorts
The story skips ahead abruptly at this point. It is now 2008. Sylvie is 47 years old. She has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and told she has six months to live. When she breaks the news to William, he asks her what she needs, but she is unable to answer him. William already knows the answer: she needs Julia.
When William calls Julia to tell her the news, she doesn’t know how to process it. Now a very successful executive, she is not used to dealing with anything she can’t schedule, manage, or optimize. She tells WIlliam she is too busy to return to Chicago.
Alice, meanwhile, is working as a copyeditor. Her most recent project is a modern retelling of Little Women.
After her diagnosis, Sylvie returns to her father’s favorite writer, Walt Whitman. The manuscript she has been working on for decades now – stories of her and her sisters’ childhoods – nags at her, but she resists finishing it. Writing “The End” would feel too final, she decides.
Cecelia and Emeline are devastated by the news. For a long time, whenever one of the Padovano sisters has felt unwell or upset, they have said “I feel like Beth,” the gentlest of the March sisters, who dies in the novel Little Women. Emeline angrily tells Sylvie that she, Emeline, should have been the one to die – after all, she was most like Beth. Sylvie reflects on how this unexpected diagnosis has rewritten the narratives of all her sisters’ lives, not just her own.
William thinks about everyone he has cut out of his life. He left Julia and Alice out of a desire not to hurt them, but he begins to confront the fact that he has behaved in the same way his parents did to him in the wake of his sister Caroline’s death. As a way of making amends, he brings a photo of Caroline to Cecelia and asks her to paint his dead sister into one of her murals, which she does.
Meanwhile, Julia visits Sylvie in secret. The pair of them go to the Irish pub where Charlie loved to drink. Julia tells Sylvie that Sylvie was a better partner for William than she had been herself. Sylvie suggests it isn’t too late for Julia and Alice to have William in their lives again. On her return to New York, Julia tells Alice that her father is alive.
Sylvie dies on the same day as Alice goes to Chicago to finally meet her father. Her reunion with William takes place at Sylvie’s funeral. The story ends on a sad but hopeful note – William realizes that by reconnecting with the more distant members of Sylvie’s family, he keeps Sylvie’s memory alive. And Julia entrusts Alice with Sylvie’s now-finished manuscript – the one that now holds the story of the Padovano sisters.
The final scenes of the story are told from William’s point of view, and they deftly illustrate how becoming part of the Padovano family has enabled him to broaden his perspective on what love is and can be. Far from the troubled young man from an emotionally distant home, the novel’s last chapter shows him walking in the garden with his daughter Alice, now finally able to make an effort to reach out to her instead of instinctively shutting her out. Looking back at the house he is able, from a new angle, to see the outlines of figures in the window: Emeline, Julia, Rose, and Cecelia. All the women, apart from Sylvie, who have loved him, and whose love will carry him through his grief.
In many ways, that’s what Hello Beautiful is ultimately about. It is a testament to the power of stories, and how the stories we tell ourselves can direct our lives, for better and for worse. It is also a story about the enduring, if complicated, bonds of sisterhood.
About the Author
Parenting, Sex, Relationships, Religion, Spirituality, Society, Culture
Hello Beautiful is a family drama that spans four decades and explores the themes of love, loss, identity, and forgiveness. The novel follows the lives of William Waters and Julia Padavano, who meet in college and fall in love. William, who suffers from depression and low self-esteem, finds solace and joy in Julia’s large and lively family, which includes her three sisters: Sylvie, Cecelia, and Emeline. Julia, who is ambitious and confident, has a clear vision of their future together and helps William pursue a career as a history professor.
However, their plans are disrupted when Cecelia becomes pregnant as a teenager and decides to keep the baby. William supports Cecelia’s decision, but Julia is furious and feels betrayed by both of them. She also resents William for not having a stronger sense of self and for depending on her too much. Their marriage begins to crumble, and William falls into a deeper depression.
He eventually attempts suicide, which causes a rift between him and Julia’s family, especially Sylvie, who blames him for hurting her sister. The novel then shifts to the perspectives of the next generation: Cecelia’s daughter Lila, Sylvie’s son Max, and Emeline’s daughter Ruby.
They each struggle with their own issues, such as Lila’s resentment towards her absent father, Max’s anger towards his alcoholic mother, and Ruby’s search for her biological father. They also try to understand their parents’ choices and mistakes, and to reconnect with their estranged uncle William. The novel ends with a hopeful note, as the family members reconcile with each other and find new ways to heal.
Hello Beautiful is a captivating and poignant novel that pays homage to Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. The author skillfully portrays the complex dynamics of a family that is both loving and flawed, and how their relationships evolve over time.
The characters are well-developed and realistic, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, dreams and regrets. The novel also explores the topics of mental health, suicide, adoption, and infertility with sensitivity and compassion. The writing style is engaging and elegant, with vivid descriptions and emotional dialogues.
The novel alternates between different points of view and time periods, which adds depth and variety to the story. However, some readers might find the transitions confusing or abrupt at times. The novel also has a slow pace and a long length, which might make it difficult for some readers to stay invested in the plot. Overall, Hello Beautiful is a powerful and moving novel that will appeal to fans of literary fiction and family sagas. It is a story that asks: Can love make a broken person whole?