I’ve been putting off writing this review for over a month now. A Good Hard Look was the latest book to knock me off my feet, literally lay me up on the couch for an entire Saturday doing nothing but reading. The pages turned involuntarily, my mug of tea seemed to refill itself (I certainly don’t remember doing it – same for the trips to the bathroom). My mind was simply not in this world. It was in Milledgeville. Incidentally, that small Georgia town, both the setting of this novel where Flannery O’Connor is a character and the historical home of the author, is only an hour and a half away from my couch. Which is partially why, I believe, this review has been such a doozy. But with my Flannery O’Connor Collected Works due back at the library today, it seems a fitting day to finally put words to the thoughts that have been kaleidoscoping in my mind over this book.
First, an anecdote: I’m in the car with a friend who is a retired English Professor from Georgia Tech. As per usual, we’re talking about books.
Me: I’ve just finished a wonderful book. Have you come across A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano?
Friend: No… no, that doesn’t ring a bell.
Me: It’s a novel set in Milledgeville, GA where Flannery O’Connor is a central character.
Friend: Wait! I think I did read something about that. If I’m correct, some folks down there were not too happy about aspects of the book.
Me: Yes. I believe the author only visited Andalusia Farm once before writing the novel and, as she’s from New Jersey, some locals were unhappy about someone who’d only once been to the south writing about their home town and their most famous resident.
Friend: [pursed lips, raised eyebrows, casts me a knowing and disapproving look] I see.
That about sums up the climate in which this book was received by some Georgians and O’Connor fans. And it about sums up the territorial tensions that endure in the south over our most unique and prized authors, even when some of those same southerners admit to not being great fans of the author in question. We have to laugh at our human nature, our conviction that only we can understand our own ugliness, which, incidentally, was one of O’Connor’s favorite subjects: human ugliness.
The fact is, Napolitano wrote a fine novel full of fictional characters whose lives become forever linked by the tragedy of one afternoon. The tragedy is the inevitable, Tolstoyian result of a series of misguided but understandable choices made by imperfect humans. Like many of O’Connor’s stories, the characters in A Good Hard Look are bullied into experiencing grace when pushed into the corner of their own personal, emotional, and/or spiritual crises. But unlike O’Connor’s work, Napolitano is unable to resist giving her characters the promise of a happy ending. Napolitano’s version of grace is more mainstream; she has heard the cries of readers who are uncomfortable with O’Connor’s gritty, capricious and crushing brand of grace. This is wear Napolitano diverges most notably from her muse. While it makes for a gentler, less traumatic read than O’Connor’s work, it is also less pervasive , which is just another way of saying, it will not haunt you like O’Connor’s stories.
I suspect Napolitano was aware of this crucial missing piece in her hommage to O’Connor. While not willing to relinquish entirely her mother-author desire to see her characters happy and well-adjusted, she does try and compensate for this missing haunting element by making a motif of the forty plus peacocks that reside on Andalusia Farm. With their haunting cries continually disrupting the characters’ lives, they become rather obvious harbingers of doom.
That sounds harsh. All the more so because I did really enjoy the book. That and the fact that Napolitano and I had a brief conversation on Twitter (gotta love social media) so now I feel loyal to her (because Twitter convo = Best Friends For Life, duh).
In any case, during that conversation, she was good enough to direct me to an article she’d written for The Millions about her recent visit to Milledgeville. In the article, she addresses some of the criticism of the disgruntled locals and O’Connor buffs who attended her reading at Andalusia (what’s her authority, and all that). She doesn’t apologize for being a northerner writing about a southern author (and nor should she). She does explain that she is a fiction writer. But more than that, I get the feeling from both her novel and the article that Napolitano is an admirer and student of O’Connor, nothing more. She’s not writing to lay claim to the author. She’s not attempting to put a northern stamp on O’Connor or play the let’s-create-more-stereotypical-and-offensive-southern-characters game (we are rather sensitive about being seen as ignorant, bigoted and incestuous, are we not?). She is simply laying one more stone on the O’Connor cairn.
The end result makes for, if not an entirely tone and theme-appropriate monument to the author, certainly an inspired and original one. And lest we forget to have fun, it’s also a delightful read.