55 pages 1 hour read

Ann Napolitano

Hello Beautiful

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide



Hello Beautiful is American author Ann Napolitano’s fourth novel. Hello Beautiful was an instant New York Times bestseller and was selected as an Oprah’s Book Club Pick. It has been praised by critics and readers for its homage to Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women. This guide uses the 2023 Dial Press edition.

Content Warning: The guide and novel contain discussions of mental illness and death by suicide.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with the birth of William Waters in 1960 and chronicles his lonely childhood. Only days after his birth, his sister dies, leaving his parents bereft and emotionally withdrawn. Because of this, William is emotionally neglected and begins to suffer from depression. He finds solace through basketball, which allows him to finally feel connected to other people without having to share his emotions. After graduation, he attends Northwestern University on a sports scholarship, and there he meets the vibrant and ambitious Julia Padavano, who quickly makes him her boyfriend.

With Julia come her three sisters: the bookish Sylvie, artistic Cecelia, and nurturing Emeline. Her parents, Charlie and Rose, are opposites in many ways. William’s life quickly becomes intertwined with the Padavanos, and when he and Julia are engaged, Rose tells him to start calling her mom.

William’s life becomes complicated when he shatters his knee during a basketball game. Because a previous injury never fully healed correctly, he requires multiple surgeries and is no longer able to play basketball. This causes William to sink into another depression, during which he becomes uncertain of his identity or purpose. Without an internal sense of self, William looks to Julia for guidance, and she happily provides it: She decides William should become a history professor, and he accepts this path, enrolling in Northwestern’s graduate history program.

Julia’s straightforward plans for their lives are derailed when Cecelia, who is still in high school, becomes pregnant and decides to raise the child as a single mother. Rose, a faithful Catholic, is appalled at her daughter’s choice and kicks her out of their home. Trying to get their family back together again, Julia decides to get pregnant, even though William expresses uncertainty about wanting a child. Things fall apart in quick succession: Cecelia has her baby, Izzy, and moments after Charlie visits her in the hospital, he dies; Rose pushes Sylvie, her remaining daughter, out of the house and announces that she is moving to Florida; and Julia and William’s marriage begins to deteriorate once she has the baby, Alice, and no longer is supervising his day-to-day life.

Effectively homeless, Sylvie begins sleeping at William and Julia’s place. Julia is worried about William and asks Sylvie to read a manuscript William has been secretly writing. Sylvie discovers that, while it is not a cohesive book, it is a deeply personal project in which she is able to see William’s uncertainty about his identity and purpose. Sylvie begins to see her brother-in-law’s struggles and considers him in a new light.

William drifts further into his depression. One day, he accidentally falls asleep on a bench and misses his classes, and feeling as though his life is a sham anyway, he stops attending classes altogether. For a week, he lies to Julia and keeps up the guise of his routine, but when she discovers the truth, he tells her that he will only hurt her and Alice if he stays with them. He leaves and wanders the streets of Chicago for a long time and then attempts to drown himself in Lake Michigan.

Julia tells Sylvie that William has left, and Sylvie is concerned, knowing William’s troubled state. With William’s friends, Sylvie searches all night for him and finally finds him the next day, when she sees people pulling a man out of Lake Michigan. She claims to be William’s wife so she can ride with him in the ambulance. All throughout his hospitalization and recovery, Sylvie stays by William’s side and gradually begins to fall in love with him. At first, William insists that he will simply hurt her too, but Sylvie continues to visit, and the two fall deeply in love with one another.

Fearful that William’s mental health will affect their daughter, Julia is relieved when he agrees to a divorce and relinquishment of his parental rights. She moves to New York City for a job and begins building her own life apart from her family, raising Alice as a single mother. When she learns about William and Sylvie’s relationship, she is deeply wounded and breaks ties with her sister, limiting the rest of the family’s access to her as well. As Alice grows older, she knows very little about her family, and Julia tells her that her father is dead.

For years, the rest of the Padavanos stay involved in one another’s lives in Chicago; Cecelia and Emeline live in twin duplexes, and they co-parent Izzy. With the help of his friends, William realizes he can continue to have a career in basketball, and he gets a job as a physical therapist with the Chicago Bulls. Julia is happy in New York City but realizes she misses being in her sisters’ lives. Alice grows into a cautious teen, afraid to upset her mother by asking questions about her family.

Decades later, Sylvie is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and William calls Julia to tell her the news. Although Julia initially refuses to act, her deep connection with Sylvie pulls her back to Chicago, and the sisters reconcile before Sylvie’s death. Their reconciliation also prompts Julia to finally tell her daughter the truth about William and the Padavanos. The novel closes with Alice traveling to Chicago to meet the family she’s never known and William opening his heart to her, allowing for a final reconciliation the day after Sylvie’s death.

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By Ann Napolitano