The debut novel by the award-winning poet Jennifer Olds, Good Night, Henry is the story of a family that is anything but traditional. Melvina Brown is a twin - fraternal, not identical. Her sister Belinda is the one with the looks, and all their lives Mel always felt second-best to her beautiful sister. The two were as different as night and day. Yet, despite their differences, they are closer than any other two sisters can be, although at times it is difficult for them to be friends. A big part of the story deals with their relationship and sibling rivalry, which plays a big role in how their lives pan out over the years.
Henry is their older brother who had disappeared fifteen years ago. Mel still talks to him as if he were in the room with her, because deep in her heart she does not think he is dead. There was no body to be found, so as far as she’s concerned, he’s alive and well and living the life he always wanted. She and Henry were as close as two people could be, and some even mistook them to be twins. It is evident that their relationship created a lot of unhappiness for their sister Belinda, although Mel is blind to this fact, too busy with her own life, too jealous of her sister’s beauty.
At the same time, Mel is dealing with an absent husband who is back in her life after being away for many years, and her boyfriend who she loves more than anyone. But it is her two children that make her feel grounded. Archie is her older son, and at age ten he is taking after Henry - in all the wrong ways. The younger son, Theo, was born without a complete right arm and deals with living the life of a child who is ostracized by his peers. Theo is the loving gentle son, while Archie is the older angry one. And with the reappearance of their father, Archie develops a jealous rage causing him to hate his father and his brother, who is bonding with their long lost father as if Tucker had never deserted them all those years ago.
The dynamics between the different important relationships is what makes Good Night, Henry fascinating. Mel and Belinda, with their hot and cold sisterly love for each other, are at the core of the novel. They make up the family unit, giving each other support for each other’s children, with the help of Belinda’s husband and their elderly father. Walt and Mel have a tenuous relationship that could be easily destroyed with the appearance of her husband, who disappeared soon after Theo was born. Mel doesn’t realize how she is taking Walt for granted, doesn’t realize how close she is to losing him. Archie and Theo, so much like their mother and aunt, display a similar sibling rivalry that threatens to break up their relationship. Archie’s resentment toward Theo isn’t obviously evident at first, but comes to play before the end of the story, creating the climax of the book and a very dangerous situation for the two boys.
And always present in Melvina’s heart and soul is Henry, an almost mythic character that shapes Mel’s future life as she clings to the memory of her cherished brother, choosing to blank out the bad memories that everyone else seems to remember, but Mel refuses to acknowledge. Henry has been long gone, but his memories are ever present in one way or another. And while this is one way Mel has not been able to move forward, her need to cling to the past, especially her marriage to Tucker, is what keeps her from forging a future with Walt, or with any other man.
Good Night, Henry is a wonderfully written book that should not be passed up. Highly recommended for the realistic characters and their relationships that Olds created so carefully and meticulously, it is a story of one family that deals with what life throws at them, no matter how bad things can get. And no matter how bad things can get, there is always family.