A Good Hard Look: Good on Characters, Hard on Flannery O'Connor

BlogHer Review

In the harried state of the last week, I was able to pause a moment on my myriad of plane rides to dive into Ann Napolitano's new book, A Good Hard Look.  From the first pages, I was intrigued by the cast of characters and Napolitano's ability to transport me to 1960's Milledgeville, Georgia.  Throughout the book, I felt the warmth of the sun on the back of my neck as I felt anger, sadness, and even the sting of sympathy and regret for her well-crafted characters.  

I'll admit, I went into this novel knowing very little about Flannery O'Connor, having read just one of her short stories back in high school and remembering very little about her, her style or her story.  I am even choosing to write this review having avoided searching for knowledge about her on the ever perused site of wikipedia.  I like this decision, as it places me in exactly the spot that many younger female writers sit- knowing very little about this writer, her life battles, or her fiction.  I had no pedastal for Flannery, and this allowed me to read as I found her written: cold, spiteful, bitter, guilt-ridden, and sympathetic for no one but herself.  

Napolitano has etched her characters so painstakingly that I see their flaws and their downfalls seem nearly inevitable, including Flannery, and the other characters of Milledgeville, from Cookie and Lona to Melvin and Regina.  

The author has created an incredibly believable and realistic world of an early 1960's small southern town, and it's through the eyes of a newcomer, Melvin Whiteson, that we're first able to experience the setting.  It's warm, and watchful, and full of people living lives devoid of real meaning.  Cookie, the southern belle of Midgeville, has returned with her wealthy new husband Melvin to reign over the town, as she seems to have been designed to do since birth.  Her wedding eve is disrupted though, by the cacophony of peacocks, and it's from the very first chapter that Napolitano has set a scene wherein the characters are all a bit shamed, hiding something that is as a glaring and loud as the bird's noisy calls.

Quite soon in the novel, I found myself feeling sympathy for the characters that the author least likely wanted me to feel for -- Cookie, the hometown beauty queen, and Regina, Flannery O'Connor's steadfast and strong mother.  Both of these women are caught in the throws of Flannery's keen eye and harsh worldview, and when Flannery narrates, it's clear that she views herself above both women, in her ability to cut through life to the core and truly live. 

I loved the cast of mainly female characters, and enjoyed that Napolitano cut through to the core of the shaky pretenses of the early sixties, where women were just beginning to flex their independent social muscles.  Every woman in the novel was settled in their role and work, deeply frustrated by what the limits of those roles brought and yet unwilling to push outside the boundaries.  When a woman actually does push outside of this role, tragedy ensues and every single character's life is disrupted.

Napolitano's characters and Georgian setting are incredibly raw, and the book is a fast read with realistic and heartbreaking story.  It's inspired me to read a bit more about Flannery O'Connor and her fiction, and I recommend settling in with some sweet tea and a comfy chair for an enthralling read.

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