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“A Good Hard Look” by Ann Napolitano is a Southern gothic novel and a fictionalized biography of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. The story is set in Milledgeville, Ga. O’Connor, at 25, is diagnosed with lupus and forced to leave New York City and return to her family farm, Andalusia.
Flannery is the town celebrity, having authored several short stories and a couple of novels. The protagonist is mostly known around town for her outspoken ways and the horde of peacocks she and her mother keep on their farm.
The story is in three sections about the experiences of Flannery, Cookie Himmel, and their shared past. Others are Melvin Whiteson, a friend on equal footing and husband of Cookie; Lona Waters, a client; and Miss Mary Treadle, a neighbor and the town gossip.
Cookie Himmel and Flannery were young together but never close. Even when they were children Cookie felt Flannery was judging her. All Cookie ever aspired to was to be graceful, proper and pretty, while Flannery, seemed to look down on anyone wanting to be a cheerleader. Then Flannery took off for New York and used the people of Milledgeville as characters in her stories. And now even though she is home because she is sick, Flannery is still the same.
Cookie has also been to New York. There she never felt comfortable, but did find a very wealthy fiancé, Melvin Whiteson, who she brought back to Milledgeville to live. She has dreams of him becoming the mayor while she heads up all the important women’s clubs. Melvin, however, does not have his heart in politics or in Milledgeville. He only feels alive when chatting with Flannery. This friendship complicates matters and Cookie demands that her new husband stop seeing the author. As the plot emerges, an event changes the life course of every character.
Ms. Napolitano writes much in the style of Flannery O’Connor and has the same ability to see into the hearts of her characters. They may be flawed but they are sympathetic. Flannery was a very unusual young woman of courage, insight, talent, humor and warmth. This is a compelling story of a woman who chooses to be happy in spite of her circumstances.
Ms. Napolitano does an excellent job of incorporating a literary figure into a work of fiction. The inclusion of an historical individual can be risky in a fictional story but Flannery is a vital presence in this story.