Summary and book reviews of A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look

A Novel

by Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2011, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2012, 352 pages

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Book Summary

Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, ordinary and extraordinary people chart their own courses in life. In the aftermath of one tragic afternoon, they are all forced to look at themselves and face up to the observation that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

Crippled by lupus at twenty-five, celebrated author Flannery O'Connor was forced to leave New York City and return home to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Years later, as Flannery is finishing a novel and tending to her menagerie of peacocks, her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend.

Cookie Himmel embodies every facet of Southern womanhood that Flannery lacks: she is revered for her beauty and grace; she is at the helm of every ladies' organization in town; and she has returned from her time in Manhattan with a rich fiancé, Melvin Whiteson. Melvin has come to Milledgeville to begin a new chapter in his life, but it is not until he meets Flannery that he starts to take a good hard look at the choices he has made. Despite the limitations of her disease, Flannery seems to be more alive than other people, and Melvin is drawn to her like a moth to a candle flame.

Melvin is not the only person in Milledgeville who starts to feel that life is passing him by. Lona Waters, the dutiful wife of a local policeman, is hired by Cookie to help create a perfect home. As Lona spends her days sewing curtains, she is given an opportunity to remember what it feels like to be truly alive, and she seizes it with both hands.

Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, these ordinary and extraordinary people chart their own courses through life. In the aftermath of one tragic afternoon, they are all forced to look at themselves and face up to Flannery's observation that "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

Excerpt
A Good Hard Look

The peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male's pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.

The birds didn't care that it was the middle of the night, and they didn't care who they were disturbing. They didn't care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom, who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws' house, paralyzed with fear. They didn't care that his fiancé startled awake in the next room and toppled out of her high bed, and they certainly didn't care that her face hit a stool on the way down. They didn't care that the rest of the small Georgia town was also awake, twitching in their beds like beached fish.

The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why does Napolitano open the novel with the screaming of the peacocks and with Cookie's fall? Why does she end the novel with a peacock's tail pushing through the net of its captor?

  2. What kind of woman is Flannery O'Connor as she is portrayed in A Good Hard Look? How is she perceived by the people of Milledgeville? What crucial moments in the novel reveal her full depth and complexity?

  3. Flannery has a "clear preference for fiction over reality, but reality wouldn't leave her alone" [p. 168]. How does reality intrude upon Flannery's desire to escape into her fiction? How does she respond to such intrusions?

  4. Napolitano's writing is filled with vivid, arresting metaphors. The heat in the kitchen ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I first read this novel over a month ago and have just re-read it - and I am very glad I did. Some books are simply born to be re-read, and then probably read again! Very much in the way Melvin thought of Flannery O'Connor, this novel strategically rubbed the facade of the many social pretenses right off everyday small town social interactions. It was intriguing with moments of brilliance, and led the reader to look very closely at the things that really matter between the people in our lives! Highly recommended - for both personal reading and for book group discussions - Kathrin C   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review Members Only (461 words).

Media Reviews

Atlanta Journal

Ann Napolitano's novel, A Good Hard Look, with O'Connor occupying a central role, does the Georgia author proud. Be prepared to like this book. It's complicated and peacock-haunted and strange... At the heart of Napolitano's brave book lies that question: the mysteries of freedom, its price, and the unmarked paths we take to get there.

O Magazine

A fictional version of the life of the acclaimed Southern writer that is as vibrantly colorful as the peacocks raised on the O'Connor family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia… Napolitano makes no attempt to mimic O'Connor’s singular style, but she does succeed in creating a wholly believable world shaped by duty, small pleasures, and fateful choices.

Library Journal

[S]harp and thoughtfully written; great for book clubs, so be glad that there's a guide.

Booklist

[E]ven if the second can't quite live up to the first half, the whole is above average: muggy, sleepily enthralling, and worth a read.

Publishers Weekly

Though Napolitano steeps her tale in the Southern gothic made famous by her famous character, she could have used O'Connor's help with her prose.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
In A Good Hard Look, Ann Napolitano seems to be channeling as well as portraying the fascinating Flannery O'Connor. With uncanny insight and perception, Napolitano pierces the surface of her characters' lives, laying bare their deepest desires. Small-town life rarely gets this riveting and real. What a superb book.

Author Blurb Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
Ann Napolitano is an expert at carving out the interior lives of her characters, at revealing both the mystery and the manners of heartbreak. A Good Hard Look is not just a novel about an extraordinary American literary figure. It is an examination of how we can live our lives to the fullest.

Reader Reviews

Stacey Bosworth

An Authentic Life -- A Beautiful Book!
I just finished reading Ann Napolitano's latest book and I was immediately drawn into a world so rich with characters struggling to find themselves that the entire experience of reading the book took me on a personal journey as well. Napolitano's...   Read More

Kathrin C. (Corona, CA)

195 p. GOOD; 99 p. HARD and 35 p. LOOK!
I first read this novel over a month ago, and then also read another half dozen books and so unfortunately lost track of the finer points. So I've just re-read it - and I am very glad I did. Some books are simply born to be re-read, and then probably...   Read More

Terye B. (Scotts Valley, CA)

Absorbing book
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was transfixed from the beginning. I began the story wanting to learn about Flannery O'Conner and found so much more. The tone was exceptional to me, it drew me in with it's Southern charm. Highly recommend this ...   Read More

Barbara W. (Watertown, NY)

Thought Provoking With Engaging Characters
Absorbing read that engages you right from the start. You don't have to be familiar with O'Connor's work to enjoy the story about the author and her effect on the characters around her but you might be inspired to read some of the short stories ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Southern Gothic

A number of reviewers describe A Good Hard Look as "Southern Gothic". gothic novels Gothic fiction generally combines elements of horror and romance, and might include, among many other features, psychological or physical terror, mystery, the supernatural, gothic architecture, darkness, death and madness. One of, if not the earliest example of a gothic novel is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), and more recent examples include The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

Gothic writers tend to use the genre, in part, as a vehicle to criticize the morality of their era, but whereas traditional gothic novels tend to include ...

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