After a debilitating diagnosis of lupus, writer Flannery O’Connor leaves New York City for her hometown of Milledgeville, GA, and the family farm on the outskirts of town. There, along with her devoted mother, Regina, Flannery spends her days writing and raising rare peacocks, as many as 50 of them, much to their neighbor’s chagrin.
"You need not have read Flannery O’Connor’s fiction to be moved and transfixed by this novel, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself heading to the nearest bookstore..."
Across town, Cookie Himmel is beginning her marriage with her New York-transplant husband, Melvin Whitson. Cookie has always harbored an intense dislike for her town’s most famous citizen, her literary laurels notwithstanding. They couldn’t be more opposite. Cookie is the embodiment of all that Flannery isn’t; petite, blonde, a member of every social committee, she is the consummate Southern lady and wife, and in the writer’s eyes, a silly, frivolous woman. Cookie knows this, and it irritates her to no end. In reading Flannery’s works, she gains a disturbing insight into her own world she neither wanted nor asked for. She “was discomfited by how these ugly words had the ring of truth about them. Life was disappointing and hideous, and she had been a fool to think otherwise.”
Despite her lack of respect for Cookie, Flannery forges an unlikely friendship with Melvin, who is impressed by her talent and wit, and feels at ease when he’s with her. He “liked the idea that something he told Flannery might appear in a book. His life was a messy compilation of moments that didn’t fit together. If Flannery wove them into a narrative, they would have cohesion, and significance. He would be able to read about himself, and all that was inexplicable in real life would be explained. Flannery’s gift made Melvin like her even more. It made him want to tell her everything.”
Cookie has big plans for Melvin. Hopefully one day, he can be Mayor with her at his side, if only he will get serious and focus. Melvin agrees to give Flannery driving lessons, and on these jaunts, the sickly writer chides her new friend about his cushy new life and apparent lack of ambition. Because of her disease, Flannery knows her days are numbered, and it bothers her when others don’t treat life with the same sanctity or urgency as she does.
Lona Waters, wife of local policeman Bill Waters, is the seamstress in town. Cookie and Melvin setting up house in Milledgeville has been a godsend to Lona, as she is recruited to help Cookie with all the curtains and window treatments for their new home. And since Cookie often changes her mind, the job is taking longer than anticipated. Lona realizes that “she had been having fun in the Whiteson house. She had been having fun for perhaps the first time in her life. She didn’t want this job to end, and the realization felt exhilarating.” Part of the exhilaration comes from the freedom the job affords her, but as the days go by, she has to admit that she enjoys it mostly because of the company of her new apprentice, teenager Joe Treadle, whom Lona hired as a favor to his mother, Miss Mary, who is worried about his broodiness. The more time they spend together, the more they realize they have in common.
Joe is sweet, quiet and kind, nothing like Lona’s husband, who could match Cookie Himmel Whiteson for ambition. In this sullen, young teenager, Lona has found a kindred spirit. But this unlikely pair is like characters in a story not unlike those written by Flannery herself. They hurtle towards a tragedy that will rock them, and the entire town, to its very core. And in the aftermath, Flannery’s prized peacocks are left to look upon the wreckage, much like the foreboding eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, looking down in judgment of the proceedings in Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY.
You need not have read Flannery O’Connor’s fiction to be moved and transfixed by this novel, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself heading to the nearest bookstore, library or computer to read her work for the first time or to revisit those gothic gems. Ann Napolitano has written a mesmerizing tale of southern life, ambition and destiny that will leave readers dazed and shaken, as if they’d stared directly into the Georgia sun. In the novel, Flannery counsels the students of her local high school with some sage advice: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have…and then use it.” Obviously Napolitano has taken a good, hard look at her talents, and we the reader are all the better for it.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on August 4, 2011
A Good Hard Look