A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano Brings A Southern Icon Back To Life

BlogHer Review

When I read the back jacket flap for the book A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano, I was a little dismayed to see the author of a book featuring a fictional version of one of our great Southern icons is a New Yorker. I wondered: How can this be? Who is this Yankee that’s concerning herself with my Southern culture? Then I read the book. As it turns out, this Yankee just happens to be a damn fine writer.

A Good Hard Look revolves around the return of beautiful and driven Cookie Himmel to her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia from New York City to marry her fiancée, Melvin Whiteson. A New Yorker, Melvin has trouble adjusting to life in the small town and quickly strikes up a friendship with Flannery O’Connor. When Cookie forbids Melvin to be friends with O’Connor he is left wondering what happened between Cookie and Flannery that caused his wife to dislike the author so strongly.

By including Flannery O’Connor as one of the main characters in a book that largely takes place in Milledgeville, Georgia (O’Connor’s hometown), Napolitano has taken it upon herself to tackle the Southern Gothic genre and the grotesque characteristics that embody it. The author accomplishes this task with such grace and ease that I feel she has earned the title “Honorary Southerner.” Napolitano has a gift for finding the beauty in tragedy and sadness. From the bride walking down the aisle with a tender, puffy black eye at the beginning of the book to the graphic descriptions of an adolescent boy’s literal growing pains, Napolitano’s prose lures the reader into a sleepy lullaby of a story about a Southern town and the characters who inhabit it only to wake the reader towards the middle of the novel with a swift punch to the gut. Tragedy, accompanied by the sounds of the shrieking peacocks that provide a haunting background for the events of the book, appeared suddenly amidst the beauteous meandering passages that comprise the novel and shook me to my core.

Flannery O’Connor is the star of A Good Hard Look. The events of the book take place toward the end of the author’s life when O’Connor was already well into her battle against the Lupus ravaging her body. Although the story is fictional, it’s easy to picture the great author sitting on her mother’s front porch at Andalusia, the O’Connor family farm. Flannery is working on her novel The Violent Bear It Away throughout much of the book. Early on in A Good Hard Look Cookie says to her husband in warning of O’Connor and her habit for using bits and pieces of Milledgeville and its townspeople as inspiration for her works:

You don’t know her. She’ll size you up like you’re made of dollars and cents. She’ll count you up and reckon how much of you she can use.

It’s observations from the other characters like this one that made the book for me and really brought Flannery O’Connor to life.

A Good Hard Look is Southern fiction at its finest as well as a fitting tribute to one of the South’s legendary authors. I highly recommend picking up a copy at your local bookstore.