A Good Hard Look: A Hearty Character Soup
I began reading A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano with a very skeptical eye. Whenever I encounter a book that uses historical figures as characters, especially esteemed writers such as Flannery O'Connor, I speculate on the accuracy and genuineness of their portrayal. I found myself enthralled but wary of her character, and chose to look up the different instances that Napolitano included in the novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the major events, such as the backwards-walking chicken and the peacock farm, were in keeping with O’Connor’s own eclectic life. Napolitano was sensitive to the different nuances of her emotional journey from an able youth to a disabled woman and I enjoyed the way she interacted with others throughout. She definitely carried the novel for me, acting as the hearty core that all actions and reactions returned to.
My connection with Cookie and Melvin was slow in coming and heavily attached to the proximity each had to Flannery. For many pages, I did not understand Cookie’s need for a controlled and perfect life, and only connected with her once tragedy struck. The second third of the book (Hard), when Cookie delves into her own instability and discusses her checkered past with Flannery, is when she is most relatable. Likewise, Melvin is most approachable when he gives driving lessons or goes to stare in awe at the peacocks. While they were positioned as the main couple, their narrative was only a good compliment to the whole stew -- like plain bread.
Lona and Joe’s tragic love kept me locked in place; in some ways, they enlivened the Southern Gothic in this novel and made me want to keep reading. These two were the seasoning that kept things interesting. Their atypical and unexpected elements -- smoking marijuana and diving into an elicit love affair -- popped them out of the Milledgeville scenery and made them seem the most contemporary of all.
By far, however, my favorite character was Gigi. While she was passed over in the first part of the novel, by the end she was a strong woman who pursued a hard life in NYC and returned to Milledgeville to tie up loose ends. Gigi was the surprise flavor of the novel, which progressed from a thin whiff to a strong element of the group.
Ann Napolitano’s novel pushed me to the finish line because of her nuanced character design and the web that they weave together. While the storyline takes about 50 pages to pick up, the reader is carried by the promise of a complex and tasteful portrayal of very different individuals as they come together in this unlikely narrative.