Three Words for Goodbye
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have reunited to write an adventure story about women traveling alone in the 1930s and 1940s. The story of two sisters and their grandmother, all bonded by the spirit of adventure, Three Words of Goodbye is a lovely if slightly rote, very feminist story about how the march of time leaves all three women unbowed by life.
Clara and Madeline Sommers have agreed to accompany their terminally ill (with lung cancer) grandmother Violet on what is likely to be her last wish, a journey across Europe. Since it’s 1937 and fascism has already begun to surge in various countries, that is not going to be an easy feat. Violet plans on delivering three letters to three important people in her life as they go – they’re all persons that she met in Europe in the 1910s, when she made a trip inspired by Nellie Bly, with whom she was friendly. Their journey home is scheduled on an air dirigible named The Hindenburg (!!).
Clara and Maddie each have different opinions about the trip. Outspoken, intense journalist-wannabe Maddie plans on using it as an excuse to report more closely on the fascist activities of Hitler and Mussolini. Refined Clara – who long ago set aside her dream to become a painter in favor of a society marriage – will wed millionaire Charles Hancock when she comes home. She just wishes Charles would take her love of painting seriously. Little does Clara know that Charles so mistrusts her judgment that he has hired a man to spy on them while they’re away. The two sisters have been estranged for years, and are not exactly comfortable to be stuck in such close quarters during the journey, but they agree to it for their grandmother’s sake.
As they go – first on the Queen Mary, then the Orient Express, and finally on that infamous dirigible – Clara and Maddie learn more and more things about their grandmother’s past, including a shocking secret about their lineage delivered by their long-estranged great Aunt Margaret – and as they travel from New York to Paris to Venice to Vienna, they begin to get closer to one another. Enter the mysterious Daniel, who intrigues Maddie. Enter doubts from Clara that giving up her love of art is what she truly wants. Enter old wounds and conflicts which have long brewed between the sisters. And enter the looming shadow of the Hindenburg, which threatens to change both of their lives forever.
Three Words for Goodbye is classic, family-driven women’s fiction. What works, like the period detail and the spirited Maddie’s relationship with her quieter sister, and the overall themes of feminism and independence – really works. What doesn’t – like some research bobbles that have Clara visiting an art museum that didn’t exist at the time, and some really ridiculous plotting whoppers that take place in the final third of the book – really do not. It’s a sweeping and absorbing read, but it has its flaws.
It’s not enough that Clara and Maddie travel on every single notable ship and mode of transport from the era, oh, no, they have to end up on the Hindenburg’s final brush with fate! This smells like the editor desperately wanted to throw some action into the final chapter. But that said, I liked our three principal narrators – spirited Maddie, repressed Clara, and fiery Violet. One can picture Maddie’s life during the war and the choices Clara will make in the future. The period detail is quite outstanding, and both authors manage to make the settings stand out.
The men in the womens’ lives are less interesting than the sisters – and since they stand alone, brave and on the cusp of great conflict as the book ends, that should be expected, and the author handles the political intrigue that marks the earliest chapters quite well. Three Words for Goodbye is more than a trifle, but it definitely could’ve used just a little more zest.