A Good Hard Look: Not the Pageturner I Was Seeking (Spoilers!)

BlogHer Review

“I’m sure you didn’t consider this," she said, "but it’s possible that the characters are closer to grace at the end of the stories. Grace changes a person, you know. And change is painful”.

Ann Napolitano's A Good Hard Look is populated with characters undergoing painful change. From the bored housewife Lona Waters, who smokes pot to get through her predictable, uneventful days as the wife of Bill Waters, super-cop, to Flannery O’Connor herself, embodied as both voice of reason and an example of a life not wasted, despite the life wasting away from her uncooperative body, nobody can escape having to take a good hard look at him-/herself.

Spoilers!

Napolitano delves into Southern fiction with a tale of small town Georgia and the return of Cookie, the hometown sweetheart. She brings Melvin back to Milledgeville with her, a man willing for a distraction to leave behind the memories of his now-deceased parents while he coasts on through life. But there’s a problem -- Flannery O’Connor. Since high school, Cookie has been sure that Flannery could see her for who she really is, and she’s desperate that nobody find out how ugly she is deep down inside.

While Cookie spends her days at committee meetings, working hard to have Flannery’s books banned from the local library, all the while successfully displaying herself as the woman who has it all, her new husband, Melvin, is drawn to Flannery’s farm, unable to resist her tell-it-like-it-is company, despite Cookie making him promise to stay away.

Lona Waters is tempted as well. Through a twist of fate, she is delivered teenaged Joe as her new assistant in her curtain-making business, and finally finds a reason to participate in life again. Ultimately, her transcendence leads to the tragedies that bring about transformation in all the characters in the book. Nobody is unscathed -- and yet, while a happy ending is not provided, there may be hope. Lona can find a new life in New York. Melvin may just be able to doff his rudderless drifting through life and help Cookie pick up the pieces. Regina will continue on without Flannery in her life. It is possible.

Reading this second novel from Napolitano was, at times, difficult. Not due to elaborate plot or antiquated language, but because it was, in many ways, annoyingly simple. In many instances, the sentences did not flow, but rather seemed to be a string of loosely-connected thoughts arranged by a much less experienced writer:

He continued to talk. He was telling her an anecdote from the station that she couldn’t understand. When he was done, she would return to the laundry room. She would imagine herself sitting on Joe’s lap on top of the rumbling machine. When Bill stopped talking, Lona said good night and laid down the phone. (127)

This may have been intentional to exemplify Lona's mundane life -- but if it was, it was not all that successful. It was more like an anchor dragging behind a boat, slowing down the progress without adding anything beneficial to the journey.

I wanted to be engrossed by the story -- to have it be a page-turner that I couldn’t put down -- but this was not possible. The concept itself is interesting, but the execution could have been better. I was about ready to join Cookie in the asylum by the end -- and found myself wishing she would jump out the window, instead of looking down on the world on the verge of her release with the hope of better days ahead. Perhaps this tale was actually the painful transformation of Napolitano as a writer, and her next novel will show her to be closer to grace, after all.

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