It’s difficult to “review” a book you love so much, a book that grabs you up and sucks you into its world with such tenacity that you simultaneously cannot stop reading but consciously slow your pace to prolong the delight, a book with characters so painfully human and flawed you know them in the deepest place in your heart, a book that fills you with despair in one moment and then elevates you with hope at another.
How does one presume to comment on a book like that?
I can tell you this much. When you hear about this book – and you will hear about it – you will hear that it’s about “living the life you were meant to live.” While it is about that, it is also about redemption and recovery and finding a way to go on living when the world is nothing but a horrendous piercing scream.
At its bare bones, A Good Hard Look, is the story of a group of people in Milledgeville, Georgia, in the early 1960’s. It’s the story of Cookie Himmel, a local socialite, and Melvin Whiteson, her rich fiance from New York, who have come back to Cookie’s hometown to start a new life. It’s the story of Lona Waters, the dutiful wife of a local policeman, who spends her days sewing curtains, smoking marijuana, and dreaming of a different life. It’s the story of young Joe Trendel, and how his adolescent yearnings for Life with a capital L propel him directly into tragedy. And it’s the story of Flannery O’Connor, whose presence in the midst of every character’s life, becomes the guiding force of this exceptional novel.
This fictionalizing of literary figures has become something of a trend, and when I first heard about a new novel that featured the iconic Southern writer Flannery O’Connor as a main character, I admit to a momentary eye-roll. “Another one of those,” I thought.
But Flannery’s presence in the novel is more than just a device. She is a fully realized character, who interacts believably and equally with the other characters. The irony is that while Flannery O’Connor is actually dying (of lupus), she is the most alive of anyone in this novel, and is instrumental in pushing the other characters toward a fuller realization of their own life dreams – albeit with tragic consequences.
And that’s where the redemption comes in. Despite a tragedy of epic proportions, there is a return to life, perhaps even to a fuller, more meaningful life, than the reader could ever have expected.
If only life could be shaped the way she shaped stories on her typewriter. A character said something provocative, and Flannery sat with the sentence. She could read it aloud and weigh its significance. If the sentence turned the story in a new, unexpected direction, one that sent her fingers flying across the typewriter keys in an attempt to keep up with what he said and what she said in response and what that new character who’d just showed up said, then she knew it was a keeper.
But life happened in the moment. There was no time to think, no time to stare at the blank wall above her desk and wonder what was right and what was wrong, no opportunity to try out a statement, one that might change her life, and then erase it before anyone else heard what she’d said.
The maturity of Ann Napolitano’s writing and vision belies her age. She says that she was drawn to the character of Flannery O’Connor when she herself contracted an autoimmune disorder, and was chronically ill for several years. In an interview with Joshilyn Jackson, Napolitano said “that experience really drove home for me the fragility of life, and since then I’ve been viscerally afraid of wasting time. I look at myself and at the people around me and think: What do you really want to do? Let’s figure out a way to do it now. How do you want to live? Let’s start living that way today. Not surprisingly, this way of thinking has also bled into my writing—how to live life is a major theme in A Good Hard Look.”
Don’t waste any more time. Buy this book now. You’ll want to keep it and read it again and again, whenever your courage for life is flagging, and your spirits need moving.
I’m grateful to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel.
A GOOD HARD LOOK, by Ann Napolitano
The Penguin Press, New York, 2011