A Good Hard Look: Hope has a Vicious Downside
When peacocks scream at the beginning of A Good Hard Look, the reader knows it foreshadows dark events. Author Ann Napolitano calls their cry one of “desperation and desire,” an apt metaphor for the theme of this vivid story that builds slowly and effectively with every page.
The novel begins with the marriage between Cookie Himmel, a perfect southern belle, gorgeous and popular, and Melvin Whiteson, an independently wealthy man she meets while living in New York.
Insecure Cookie fled her hometown of Milledgeville, Ga. for New York because of its most famous resident, author Flannery O'Connor. She’s convinced the writer had sized her up in an unflattering way and used it to sketch out a character in her first novel. What she doesn’t know is that Flannery (who is seriously ill with lupus) has always been jealous of Cookie’s beauty, health and popularity.
But now Cookie’s back in Milledgeville to make a life with Melvin. The night before their wedding, she is so startled by the piercing screech of the peacocks that she falls out of bed and must walk down the aisle the next day with a purple, bruised face. The peacocks, it turns out, belong to Flannery and make frequent appearances in the book, with their most haunting appearance right at the story’s climax.
Over Cookie’s objections, Melvin and Flannery become platonic friends on the sly, leading to one of the novel’s most dramatic events.
Another couple plays a key role in the novel: the excitement has gone out of the marriage between curtains seamstress Lona and police officer Bill. She goes from house to house making and installing drapery (getting stoned along the way), while Bill focuses his energy on positioning himself for a big promotion. When neighbors ask that she take on their teenager son as an assistant, it's the catalyst for another major event at the story’s climax.
Intriguingly, even as its characters were consumed by the reality of their lives, the story is played off against the backdrop of the fictional life of a fiction writer. New York City is depicted as a place to both escape to and escape from, even for the same characters.
I loved this book. Napolitano’s story immerses the reader into small town lives of its beautifully drawn and engaging characters. I found her prose lovely and evocative of the town, the era and the people.
And the book’s cautionary messages that “hope has a vicious downside” so you should “take moments of pleasure when you can” serve as pointed companions to a Flannery O’Connor quote used at the beginning: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”