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Ann Napolitano on her new novel 'Hello Beautiful'


William Waters finds a missing piece of life when he meets Julia Padavano in college and marries into a family of four sisters. He'd grown up feeling that his parents had only one child, and, in Ann Napolitano's memorable phrase, it wasn't him. The embrace of sisters, often comforting, sometimes stifling, forgiving, forgetting and going on is at the heart of her new novel, "Hello Beautiful." Ann Napolitano, author of the bestseller "Dear Edward," which is now an Apple Plus series, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANN NAPOLITANO: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about William. He has to grow up with a darkness, doesn't he?

NAPOLITANO: Yes. His 3-year-old sister dies the same week that he is born. And his parents are so heartbroken that when they look at him, they only feel their own pain, so they really stop looking at him. And he has very little attention and love for the rest of his childhood.

SIMON: He does eventually find achievement and recognition in basketball. He winds up going to Northwestern, where he meets Julia. I will note the Wildcats are better than usual this year, but they're not a traditional basketball powerhouse. Let's put it that way. Does knowing Julia give him another kind of recognition too?

NAPOLITANO: Yes. She is a powerful, ambitious, self-directed, vibrant young woman, and she sort of takes him in hand and tells him what to do because she has strong aspirations for her own life. She has an idea of the husband that she wants to be married to. And he fits the mold, and he's also very moldable. And he's very happy to be told what to do, so it works out well initially for both of them.

SIMON: And tell us about her sisters. You have Sylvie and then the twins, Cecelia and Emeline.

NAPOLITANO: Yes. So Sylvie is only 10 months younger than Julia, and she is a voracious reader, and she works in the local library, putting herself through college. And she is a dreamer. She has this dream that she's going to find the great love affair, a sort of once-in-a-generation love story. And that is her dream. And Emeline and Cecelia are a little bit younger, and they are twins. And Cecelia is an artist, and Emeline is a nurturer. She takes care of everybody.

SIMON: How challenging is it to write four characters who appear again and again and make them different enough to tell apart, but also enough alike to be sisters?

NAPOLITANO: Well, that's part of what fascinates me about sisters. When I was growing up, my best friend, Leah (ph) - her mother had six sisters that would come in and out of the house all the time, and they had slightly different versions of the same face, and they seemed more themselves when they're in the same room together than they did when they were separated. And that was completely fascinating to me. So it was really, like, an exciting and fun challenge to create sisters who were that close but also very strongly rooted in their own selves. I think that's a challenging relationship because you're so close and so strong-willed and so different, but it can be, like, the deepest and most rewarding of relationships, you know, unless you're challenged, which unfortunately - or fortunately - the sisters are challenged.

SIMON: And it's perfectly OK if readers detect a debt to "Little Women" in your novel.

NAPOLITANO: It is. I actually didn't intend that. It was only once I'd created - or met - the sisters, and they were having a conversation in the scene that I was writing about which March sister they were most like. And I was like, oh, yes, of course. Like, it's four sisters, just like the March girls. And Laurie in "Little Women" is a character from the outside who peers into the March family window and wants to be in there. And so does William for the Padavano sisters.

SIMON: Yeah. William and Julia, without giving away too much of the story, have a daughter, Alice, and then a darkness begins to envelop William. Or has it always been there?

NAPOLITANO: I think it had always been there. I think basketball kept it at bay. And he, you know, reaches the end of his basketball career, and it sort of begins to sink him. And he enters adulthood with its, you know, myriad responsibilities and calls upon him to sort of stand up straighter. And he finds that he's unable to.

SIMON: Yeah. How does William begin to treat his daughter?

NAPOLITANO: I think he has struggles to look at his daughter, in a similar way that his parents struggled to look at him. I think often the sort of traumas that afflict us in our youth end up playing out in various ways as we grow up, even though it's the last thing that we want to have happen. And William wants nothing but the best for his daughter, but he has a lot of fear at the same time.

SIMON: Do we inherit only the good stuff?


SIMON: Yeah.

NAPOLITANO: Unfortunately not. I think the fault lines that run through our parents often run into us, even if we weren't alive when those fault lines were created. And they become part of our DNA and our behaviors. Even if we're trying as hard as we can to run away from them, they are, in that instance, still shaping our lives. The same thing happens with the Padavano family. Rose, the mother of the four girls, got pregnant before she was married, which ended up being, you know, a wonderful thing for their family, but she does not want that for her girls. And she ends up, you know, pushing them almost to the brink. So what she sees as her failures she almost makes happen again in the next generation too.

SIMON: How much of the - may I ask? - family dynamics do you plot out, say, on index cards, and how much come to you in the process of writing?

NAPOLITANO: The first year, while I'm thinking about the book, I don't let myself write, and I only think and plan and research and take notes. But still, there's probably only about five things that I know are going to happen when I start writing the book. The rest of it, I discover.

SIMON: Help us understand what that feels like.

NAPOLITANO: Well, to me, it's kind of like being a reader. It is an act of discovery. When the book starts, William is this lonely, sad, brokenhearted little boy. And I want to find out if he can be OK after the childhood that he had. And I really wasn't sure. So I had to walk through line after line, scene after scene, interaction after interaction and be like, is this true? Like, is this how it would feel? And slowly that charts his course through the story and through the novel. And I'm right there with him, hoping that we're going to get to a place where he's all right but not sure whether that is going to be true or not. And that's part of the tension for me and keeps me writing and keeps me anxious.

SIMON: Forgive me for not knowing, but do you have sisters, brothers?

NAPOLITANO: Yeah, I have a sister, a brother and a half sister.

SIMON: No matter what issues might wind up dividing siblings, is there a - is there still a special closeness that just is in no other way emulated?

NAPOLITANO: Yes. I think because you grow up, obviously, from the very beginning and you know each other inside and out and you know all of each other's embarrassing secrets and worst moments and you know each other at each stage of your lives, there's just a - that's like a rooting system that runs all the way down into the earth. And so even if you try to walk away from each other, I think there's always that possibility and even encouragement to walk back because the roots don't go away.

SIMON: Ann Napolitano - her novel, "Hello, Beautiful" - thank you so much for being with us.

NAPOLITANO: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Lennon Sherburne