Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review ~ A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

Date Published: July 7, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59420-292-6
Publisher: Penguin Press
Pages: 336
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Publisher’s Summary: Crippled by lupus at twenty-five, celebrated author Flannery O'Connor was forced to leave New York City and return home to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Years later, as Flannery is finishing a novel and tending to her menagerie of peacocks, her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend.

Cookie Himmel embodies every facet of Southern womanhood that Flannery lacks: she is revered for her beauty and grace; she is at the helm of every ladies' organization in town; and she has returned from her time in Manhattan with a rich fiancé, Melvin Whiteson. Melvin has come to Milledgeville to begin a new chapter in his life, but it is not until he meets Flannery that he starts to take a good hard look at the choices he has made. Despite the limitations of her disease, Flannery seems to be more alive than other people, and Melvin is drawn to her like a moth to a candle flame.

Melvin is not the only person in Milledgeville who starts to feel that life is passing him by. Lona Waters, the dutiful wife of a local policeman, is hired by Cookie to help create a perfect home. As Lona spends her days sewing curtains, she is given an opportunity to remember what it feels like to be truly alive, and she seizes it with both hands.

Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, these ordinary and extraordinary people chart their own courses through life. In the aftermath of one tragic afternoon, they are all forced to look at themselves and face up to Flannery's observation that "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

My Thoughts: I read a short story by Flannery O'Connor years ago. It was beautifully written although dark and grim with very real, flawed characters. I always wanted and meant to read more of her work but never managed to. When I read about A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano featuring Flannery O'Connor as one of the main characters I knew I had to read it. And I'm glad I did. A Good Hard Look is a riveting story about several troubled and flawed characters who don't fully understand or feel understood by their loved ones and who are feeling stifled by life. In an attempt to feel better, some of them make some very poor decisions and the outcome is shocking and devastating.

Milledgeville, GA is the small southern town where Flannery O'Connor grew up and where A Good Hard Look is set. Everyone in Milledgeville knows everyone else and there's not a lot of privacy. Life in this small town is stifling for some of the characters and they find it hard to be themselves but for others, like Cookie Himmel, Milledgeville offers the chance to shine. Ann Napolitano has an amazing talent for creating very real and flawed characters who help to make her book extremely readable and difficult to put down. My favorite characters were Cookie Himmel and Flannery O'Connor along with Melvin Whiteson, the man caught in the middle. There are several other interesting characters in this book without whom A Good Hard Look would not be the fascinating read it is, but I found Flannery, Cookie and Melvin absorbing and endlessly captivating.

Flannery O'Connor was only 26-years old with her entire life ahead of her, when she was diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that resulted in her father's death when Flannery was just 15. Flannery has to return to live at the family farm in Milledgeville, GA, a place she planned to visit very infrequently once she settled in NYC. In her book Ms. Napolitano effectively contrasts Flannery with Cookie Himmel, a woman completely different from Flannery O'Connor in appearance and personality. Cookie and Flannery know each other very well having spent a lot of time together while growing up since their mothers were friends. Flannery is a few years older than Cookie but there's was never a relationship where the younger Cookie aspired to be anything like Flannery. Rather, from a young age, Cookie wanted to excise Flannery from her life and get as far away from her as possible. Ms. Napolitano doesn't reveal the source of Cookie's strong feelings until well into the novel but Cookie's attitude towards Flannery reveals quite a bit about the woman she is. Life for Flannery is all about honesty and saying what you think. She didn't wear masks which for Cookie were a necessary part of life. Everything about Cookie was manufactured and created by her. Ms. Napolitano gives us two very different characters but she makes it possible for us to relate to both women at different times throughout the book and to understand them. Although I sometimes sympathized with one woman more than the other, I never disliked either one of the characters. Both frustrated me occasionally, brought tears to my eyes at other times and I often simply wished they were friends but Cookie wasn't ready for real friendship with any woman, not in the first half of the book anyway.

Appearances and people's opinions matter too much to Cookie. She's used to being the most beautiful, the best at everything, the "bell of the ball", all affectations she wears easily. When Flannery's around Cookie feels completely insecure and vulnerable. Most of us can identify with feeling this way at some point in our lives but the difficulty here was figuring out why Cookie felt this way around Flannery. Still, we're able to sympathize with Cookie, at least until her insecurity brings out a cruel, nasty side. This is where Ms. Napolitano's talent really shines, these subtle moments and behaviors that tell us so much about a person. Flannery's no saint, she has her flaws, too, but it's her blunt, honest, "cut-to-the-chase" personality that Cookie's takes such objection too. Flannery's very presence seems to put Cookie on edge, possibly because she cannot face the woman she truly is unlike Flannery in whose life artifice has no place. Cookie doesn't understand Flannery at all and cannot relate to her but she also doesn't try. Cookie even acts fearful of Flannery at times! She's convinced when Flannery looks at her she's mocking everything that matters to Cookie. Maybe the problem is that Cookie cannot face the reality of life which Flannery meets head on and resents Flannery for this?

Early in A Good Hard Look we learn everything in Cookie's world has to be perfect and planned out because "...she was a young woman who lived by plans." Cookie gets carried away with plans after she and Melvin are married. She's convinced that if she makes herself and Melvin, a solid part of Milledgeville, Melvin won't miss his hometown, NYC, and won't want to go back there. While getting involved in every committee the town has available, Cookie doesn't notice that Melvin isn't nearly so enthusiastic and fails to take into account what he wants from life. Cookie is so intent on impressing the mayor and the other committee members as well as making her house look perfect she has no idea what Melvin's doing when he's not at work. Melvin and Cookie's failure to really communicate with each other is a problem faced by other characters in this riveting story. Melvin and Cookie are so concerned about making each other happy they forget to discover what would truly make them each happy. In trying to live a perfect, blissful life they both begin to feel suffocated and look elsewhere for relief. Nothing good can come of this kind of living and Cookie and Melvin aren't the only characters in A Good Hard Look who learn this in a most difficult way.

Ms. Napolitano applies the themes of love, deceit, identity, forgiveness and redemption in a story in which her characters are forced to look at the mess they've made of their lives and confront their true self. The unforeseen consequences of bad decisions on the part of several characters is jarring and quickly snaps them back to a reality they refused to face before tragedy struck. Now the only choice is to face the harsh, brutal truth and hope forgiveness will come. A Good Hard Look forces us to look at life from the perspective of the people we love and to think about what's most important in life and how best to secure that before we end up making some poor decisions that run our lives completely off track and into the disaster zone. Ms. Napolitano's beautifully written book is one you don't want to miss. I highly recommend it.

Ann Napolitano's website and blog

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book and to The Penguin Press for a copy of A Good Hard Look.


  1. I've never read Flannery O'Connor and I feel shamed. So many classics I've left untouched. So I'm wondering how much of this book is based on fact...

  2. I'm fascinated with O'Connor even though I've never read her work. This book sounds right up my alley.

  3. I have read a fair bit about O'Connor, and even wrote a research paper on her in college. For that reason alone, this book sounds fascinating. But I also think that the story between Melvin and Cookie also sounds like something that would really whet my interest as well. In addition, I just love that cover! This book has a lot going for it, and it's one that I think I am going to have to grab soon. Thanks for the wonderfully rendered review!

  4. SANDY: I feel the same way. My understanding is that Ann Napolitano fictionalized the friendships and relationships Flannery O'Connor has in the book except her relationship with her mother which was very close. The lupus diagnosis and Flannery's return to her family's farm in the south to live when she was ill is true and I think she portrays Flannery similar to how she was in real life. Now you've piqued my interest. I'll have to see if there's a good biography or maybe a book of letters since she liked to correspond with a lot of people.

  5. BERMUDAONION: I think you would really like this book, it's really interesting. It's made me even more curious about Flannery O'Connor!

  6. ZIBILEE: Oh, wow, so you know a lot about Flannery O'Connor, that's great! I'd love to know what you think of this book. The characters and their relationships are fantastic. I'm very interested in reading some of Ann Napolitano's other books.

  7. Very comprehensive review. Good job.

  8. I didn't realize that O'Connor had lupus - my mom has that disease as well. Sounds like I'd better read this one!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  9. I want to read and know more about O'Connor after reading this insightful review. I also plan to wish list this one.

  10. I saw this book a while back and was interested. Your thoughts on it have intrigued me even more. Great review Amy!

  11. This book sounds like something I would like to read. And since you gave it a good recommendation I'll have to read it sometime soon!

    All the best to you and the kitties.

  12. DANA: Thank you!

    HEATHERTLC: There isn't alot about Flannery's lupus in the book except that she has it, it's debilitating, she walks on crutches and it causes her a lot of health problems. I don't know a lot about lupus but Flannery seems to have a very bad case as did her dad. I hope your mom is doing much better than Flannery. Maybe the fact that medicine is much more advanced than it was during Flannery's life makes a difference? But you should read this book, it's very good!

  13. DIANE: Reading this book has seriously piqued my interest in Flannery as well and not just in her writing. Apparently she enjoyed corresponding with many peoploe so I'm hoping there's a book of her letters available.

    DARLENE: Thank you! I hope you get the chance to read it and enjoy it when you do!

  14. PESKY CAT DESIGNS: Hi! Great to see you! I hope you find the time to read this book soon. I'd love to know what you think of it when you do!

  15. The only thing by O'Connor that I've read is A Good Man Is Hard to Find and was blown away by it. I had no idea she was a character in this book. I'll have to keep this one in mind.