A Debut Novel Where Small Moments Add Up to Something Big

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By Claire Martin

By Ethan Joella

Greg Tyler will most likely die. The multiple myeloma cancer diagnosis he recently received is dire. But Greg is plucky and unshakable, plus he has a good marriage, a 7-year-old daughter he adores and a successful career under the tutelage of a benevolent boss. “He could call his life perfect if he weren’t dying,” explains the narrator of “A Little Hope,” Ethan Joella’s poignant and quietly powerful debut novel. “Don’t they know he will wrestle and clobber this thing? That is who he is.”

Of course, he also might not, which is the novel’s central tension. The story unspools in a series of interconnected vignettes told from the perspectives of various people living in the fictional town of Wharton, Conn. As we await news of Greg’s fate, the ecosystem of the place comes alive.

There’s Freddie, Greg’s wife, who works as a seamstress at a dry cleaner but dreams of applying to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Freddie’s boss, Darcy, is a crotchety widow who started her own business after her husband’s death; she’s semi-estranged from her son, Luke, a ragged former rock star with cripplingly low self-esteem. A bride-to-be named Suzette is still mourning her sister’s long-ago death when she patronizes the dry cleaning store for a wedding dress fitting. Greg’s boss, Alex, and his wife lost their only child in a bicycle crash decades ago, and now Alex is about to become a grandfather as a result of an affair he had after the accident.

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    Each resident picks up a different thread, most of them while engaged in seemingly mundane tasks — a chance encounter at a toy store, a gas station stop after a long workday. Joella is particularly deft at deconstructing quiet moments in small-town life and amplifying their significance. When Suzette goes in for her dress fitting, she ends up spilling the story of her sister’s death, which occurred on the eve of her own wedding. “You don’t ever get over that loss. It leaves a scratch in you like a record that never plays right again,” Darcy counsels Suzette. The exchange has a calming effect; suddenly Darcy doesn’t seem so stern.

    With so many characters populating the pages, you’d expect to encounter the occasional skimpily drawn one. But Joella impressively balances a cast of thoroughly realized personalities grappling with momentous events — deaths, but also weddings, breakups and births. “She was such a full person, made up of perfections and flaws and kindness and sadness,” a newlywed husband remembers of his first impression of his wife. The same could be said of the husband, along with the rest of the community. Even Darcy’s dead husband’s beloved 1964 navy blue convertible has a robust presence — and a name, Betsy.

    Greg realizes early on that he’ll need to let go of the life he’s been living if he hopes to preserve it. He takes a hiatus from his job and slowly accepts his radical identity shift. Yet as we catch glimpses of his transformation, his death seems increasingly likely. His 5 o’clock shadow is obliterated by chemo and his mobility is drastically reduced. The sense of foreboding is exacerbated by the fact that the whole town seems to be grieving one thing or another.

    By now, you might be thinking this all sounds like a huge bummer. But the title is not a wild misnomer; “A Little Hope” is also about survival and healing. The question of Greg’s fate remains a cliffhanger to the end, and yes, there’s ample anguish within his family, but the stakes have been neutralized somewhat by the townspeople’s collective growth and recovery from their own travails. These characters transform over time, make amends and see one another more honestly and fully. Their evolution is inspiring — and more than a tad hopeful.

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