A Good Hard Look: A Novel of Flannery O'Connor

A Good Hard Look: A Novel of Flannery O'Connor

by Ann Napolitano

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Overview

Forced by illness to leave behind a successful life as a writer in New York, Flannery O’Connor has returned to her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. She desires a quiet, solitary existence, but her mother, Regina, drags Flannery to the wedding of a family friend.

The embodiment of southern womanhood, Cookie Himmel is Flannery’s antithesis and has returned from her time in Manhattan to marry rich fiancé, Melvin Whiteson. Lona Waters, a dutiful housewife, is hired by Cookie to help create a perfect home, but when she is given an opportunity to remember what it feels like to be truly alive, and she seizes it with both hands.

In the course of one tragic afternoon, these characters must take a good hard look at the choices they have made and face up to O’Connor’s observation that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143121152
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/26/2012
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novel Within Arm's Reach. She is a graduate of Connecticut College and received her MFA from New York University. She lives in New York City with her family.

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

In A Good Hard Look, Ann Napolitano takes us inside the life of one of America's great writers, Flannery O'Connor. Diagnosed with lupus at 25, she returned from New York City to her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. There she spent the remaining 14 years of her life in relative isolation, living with her mother on their small farm, surrounded by dozens of cacophonous peacocks. Many readers remember her daunting stories, but the violence from her pen contrasted sharply with her peaceful farm life. With her independent spirit, razor-sharp wit, and a penetrating eye for seeing beneath social facades, she makes for a fascinating fictional character, and Ann Napolitano brings her vividly to life on the pages of A Good Hard Look.

The novel begins on the eve of the marriage between the beautiful Cookie Himmel, voted most popular girl in her high school, and the wealthy New York banker Melvin Whiteson. Expectations are high for a spectacular wedding, the most exciting thing to happen in Milledgeville for many years. But Flannery's peacocks are raising a ruckus. Their unrelenting screeching keeps the whole town awake, knocks Cookie out of bed, causing her to bruise her face, and induces a fit of ill-timed passion in the young couple. Cookie walks down the aisle the following day with a black eye and Melvin is so rattled by a sleepless night that he has to force himself to pay attention—hardly the perfect celebration they had hoped for. Thus begins a pattern of expectation and deflation that will run throughout the novel.

But many of the characters in A Good Hard Look, like those in O'Connor's own fiction, are in for much more than burst bubbles. Some are plunged into almost unimaginable suffering—suffering that will either ruin or transform them. For some, trouble arises from their restlessness, their feeling that life is passing them by. When Cookie hires Lona Waters, a listless housewife living in a permanent fog of boredom and marijuana, to make the perfect drapes for her house, Lona begins an affair that thrills her to the bone but will have tragic consequences. And as Melvin gives Flannery secret driving lessons, he feels a vitality that makes the rest of his life feel dull and pointless. He has promised his insecure wife not to see Flannery, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to her remarkable directness and depth. These secret rendezvous will bring about another devastation. Flannery herself wants to escape into her writing, more sure of herself in fiction than in reality, but reality won't leave her alone and she too is pulled into the storm of suffering by an event that leaves the whole town forever changed.

Napolitano explores the inner lives of all her characters—their thoughts and feelings and deepest motivations—with a verisimilitude rare in contemporary fiction. The result is novel that not only gives us an arresting portrait of Flannery O'Connor but illuminates the essential human predicament with remarkable insight, compassion, and ultimately hope.

 


ABOUT ANN NAPOLITANO

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novel Within Arm's Reach. She is a graduate of Connecticut College and received her MFA from New York University. She lives in New York City with her family.

 


A CONVERSATION WITH ANN NAPOLITANO

Q. What drew you to write a novel centered around Flannery O'Connor? What were the most interesting challenges/pleasures in writing about such an extraordinary literary figure? How much research did you do for the novel?

When I started A Good Hard Look, I had no idea Flannery O'Connor would come anywhere near the novel. If you'd told me she would be one of the characters, I would have said you were crazy. I had no aspiration to write historical fiction and I hadn't read any of Flannery's work in about a decade.

Initially, the book was about a character called Melvin Whiteson who lived in New York City in the present day. I had the idea of this very wealthy man who'd been given every opportunity, but didn't know what to do with those opportunities. I was interested in the question of how people choose to live their lives. The novel wasn't working though; I think Melvin was more of an idea than a character. It was about a year into the book that Flannery O'Connor showed up out of the blue—creatively speaking—though in hindsight, I can see that she embodies for me this idea of a "life well-lived". Her appearance changed everything, of course. The time period, the setting, the heartbeat of the novel. I think she also provided the contrast that Melvin required to come to life as a character, and really, to shape the rest of the narrative.

As a writer, her arrival both excited and terrified me. My dual fear—which I carried throughout the remainder of the writing process—was that I would portray Flannery inaccurately, or that I would do her a disservice by writing a mediocre book. To conquer the first fear, I did a lot of research. I read everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery's stories, her essays and two novels; I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work; I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery's front porch, and smelling the air there—I don't think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space.

To conquer the second fear, I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and then re-wrote some more. I worked on this book for seven years in total, and that's because I had to make sure Flannery was as true as possible, and that the book that contained her was not terrible.

Q. Has Flannery O'Connor been a major influence on your own work?

The short answer to that is yes, but not in the way you might think. The truth is that Flannery's non-fiction has had a much larger influence on my work than her fiction. I fell in love with Flannery's letters during college, when I was assigned The Habit of Being. I can't recommend that book highly enough; her letters are wonderful—they're irreverent, sarcastic, insightful, and wise. Flannery is accessible, and even sweet in a way you'd never guess from her fiction. So the letters drew me in, but my connection to her deepened because the content of the letters spoke directly to the circumstances of my life. Flannery chronicled her battle with lupus; when I read the letters, I was also sick. I'd been diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, an auto-immune disease, six months earlier. As it turned out, I would be ill for the next three years, and the symptoms had already dissembled my highly active, twenty-year-old life.

Reading those letters, I had what Oprah would probably call an "A-ha moment". Flannery wrote about coming to terms with her changed situation, and deciding to focus her limited energy where it would matter most—on her writing. I consciously sized up my own life in a similar manner. I had always loved writing, but I lacked the confidence to declare myself a writer. After I graduated, I planned to work in publishing, or something book-related. I would surround myself with other people's words, and maybe write on my own in secret, as a hobby. But my illness, and Flannery's example, offered up a new clarity. I was able to appreciate, in a way my obnoxiously healthy twenty-year-old peers couldn't, the real brevity of life. I could see how important it was to make each moment meaningful, and to make my life matter somehow. Because of Flannery, I decided to become a writer. So, yes, she is the major influence behind everything I write.

Q. Flannery O'Connor, as she appears in your novel and in her own writing, seems able to see through people's facades, to penetrate to the depths of who they really are. The illustration for your website shows x-ray views of people on the streets of New York City. Is this kind of x-ray vision an essential skill for a novelist to have?

It certainly helps. I'm fascinated by people—their character quirks, the way they speak, and most of all their stories, both the ones they tell and the ones they hide. I can meet someone at a party and speak to them for ten minutes, and then startle them years later when I recall verbatim the anecdote they told me at the party. I simply love stories, and I love trying to tease out the riddle of what makes a particular person tick. Writing fiction allows me to explore humanity, and that's one of the things I love most about it.

Q. You describe the peacocks several times as doing what they please rather than trying to please others. "The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do what they liked, when they liked" [p. 3]. Did you intend for the peacocks to have a particular symbolic value in the novel?

No. I really don't know what to say about the peacocks' symbolic value. I'm too close to the story; I don't have the perspective. I didn't write them to represent something, but that doesn't mean they don't. I look forward to hearing what other people think about the peacocks; I know the readers will be a lot wiser in this area than me.

All I can say with certainty is that I loved writing about the birds in every way—their visual beauty, their take-no-prisoners attitude, their noise. Each scene they showed up in, they took over in the best kind of way. The peacocks were a joy to Flannery in her life, and they were a pleasure for me in the book.

Q. Did you know how the novel would end when you began or did it take new directions as you were writing it?

Like I said earlier, I worked on the novel for a year before Flannery even showed up. So, in the beginning I knew almost nothing. Once Flannery was in the book, I figured the peacocks would play a role in the ending, but I didn't know anything more specific than that. I wrote many, many drafts, and headed in many different directions while writing this book. Imagine a tangential story line for A Good Hard Look, and I probably wrote (and deleted) it at least once.

Q. When asked whether universities stifled writers, Flannery O'Connor famously remarked: "My view is that they don't stifle enough of them." How helpful was your experience at the creative writing program at New York University? Are our MFA programs turning out too many writers?

I love that quote. My MFA experience had two distinct positives: 1) I had the chance to study under a brilliant teacher, the writer Dani Shapiro. I still have her voice in my head (in a good way) when I write. 2) I met two writers in the program—Hannah Tinti and Helen Ellis—with whom I still meet regularly to critique one another's work. They are the first sets of eyes that see any draft of my writing. I wouldn't even want to guess how many times they read A Good Hard Look. I dedicated the book to them, and frankly, they earned it.

So, my basic take on MFA programs is that they are expensive, and not necessary to become a writer, but they can certainly be helpful in various ways.

Q. What are you working on now?

I've started taking notes on a novel, which is a new experience for me. I've never tried to plot or plan before beginning a book, so I'm finding it to be an interesting (and frustrating, and hopefully rewarding) experience. The book is inspired by a news story I was obsessed with last year, but that's all I can say at this point.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Napolitano's writing is filled with vivid, arresting metaphors. The heat in the kitchen where Gigi works leans on her "like a grizzly bear, big and heavy, occasionally swatting her with a giant paw" [p. 259]. After her daughter's death, Cookie's mind "slipped across the calendar like it was a sheet of ice" [p. 207]. How do such descriptions add to the texture of the novel? How do they impact the reading experience?
  • After the tragedy that kills Joe and Rose, Flannery thinks about "degrees of need…" She had "wanted Melvin's friendship, but had she needed it? Without food and water, you die, but to what degree do people need each other?" [p. 265]. How does the novel itself answer this question? In what instances does the need for human connection appear most strongly?
  • In what different ways do Melvin, Cookie, Gigi, Miss Mary, Flannery, and Lona try to cope with the tragedy that has befallen them?
  • During her confession, the priest tells Flannery that Rose's death was an accident, but she rejects this interpretation. "As far as Flannery was concerned, an accident was something you walked away from. Words mattered to her, as did accurate definitions, and what happened on her lawn had not been an accident" [p. 271]. In what sense was Rose's death not an accident? To what degree are both Melvin and Flannery responsible?
  • Melvin tells Flannery, "I wonder what it says about you, that there are no happy endings. All your characters are left in some kind of pain." Flannery replies that "it's possible that the characters are closer to grace at the end of the stories. Grace changes a person, you know. And change is painful. It's just like you agnostic types to see the pain, but not the transformation" [p. 84 – 85]. Does A Good Hard Look have a happy ending? Who among its main characters is transformed by the pain they suffer? Is Flannery herself transformed or does she serve more as an agent of transformation in others?
  • What is it that leads Melvin to realize he has wasted his life? How does he respond to this epiphany?

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A Good Hard Look 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Staceyrb More than 1 year ago
I picked up A Good Hard Look a few days ago and I was not able to put it down all weekend. I was immediately drawn into Napolitano's beautifully crafted world of characters orbiting around Flannery O'Connor. The book takes you on the characters journey -- their pain, growth, realizations and actions that all start to change the course of their lives and those around them. It's hard not to see yourself in the characters and imagine what might be possible in your own life if you do take a good hard, honest look at the way you live. Not the mention, the writing is simple and gorgeous. You can tell that Napolitano wanted each word to count. And they do!
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At the young age of 39, Flannery O'Connor's life ended when systemic lupus claimed her body. This novel weaves a tale of the last five years of Flannery's life.A friend who shares similar reading tastes recommended this book. I owe her a big thanks! This book is brilliantly, powerfully written.Anyone who appreciates the writings of Flannery O'Connor will find a home when reading this book. It is obvious the writer researched the life of O'Connor and, it is amazing that like O'Connor, the author fascinatingly depicts characters who make choices that set a path of destruction in motion, never able to return and resew the fabric once it is unraveled.Set in the home town in Milledgeville, Georgia, the home of Flannery and her mother Regina, the backdrop of Flannery's beloved Peacocks provide the framework of a screaming, screeching set of 40 birds who, while fascinatingly beautiful, are disturbingly obnoxious.On their honeymoon eve, Melvin, a NY transplant and Cookie, his society soon to be bride make frantic love while hearing the cacophony of the bellowing and hollering birds. Setting the tone for dark events to follow, Cookie falls out of bed and blackens her eye.Pot smoking, lonely wife of the town Police Chief, Lona sews curtains for the residents of the town. When she falls in love with a 17 year old young man, her choices have grave consequences.NY transplant Melvin soon discovers a soul mate in Flannery and, while he travels thoughout town with a lovely wife, he is drawn to Flannery and her uncompromising, blunt honesty. Against the admonitions of his wife, he continues to visit Flannery. He eventually pays a very heavy price for his emotional indiscretion.In this stunningly beautiful book, Napolitano allows the reader to peer into the souls of complicated, anguished people who. like those in an O'Connor novel long for redemption and grace.Highly recommended.
ken1952 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Flannery O'Connor's last years at her farm in Milledgeville, Ga during the 60's is at the core of this emotionally charged novel that will stay with me for a long time. I don't remember the last time I've read a novel that touched me so much. The tragic lives of Ann Napolitano's characters made me that much more intersted in them. But with the tragedy comes moments of comedy that add to the richness of the novel. This should make a great book for reading groups.
Beamis12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From the beginning of this book there is a sense of tension and forboding, a wedding and the screams of peacocks. Beautifully written love the words and this fictional portrayal of Flannery O'Conner and the twon she lived in. I have to say that I have never read anything by her but just as with The Parils Wife, everyone wanted to read Moveable Feast, I now want to read Flannery.
marient7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Forced by illness to leave behind a successful life as a writer in New York, Flannery O'Connor has returned to her family home in Milledgeville, Georgia. She desires a quiet, solitary existence, but her mother, Regina, insists that she engage with the life of their small town and she drags Flannery 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 and she is at the helm of every ladies' organization in town. She has returned from hertime in Manhatten with a rich fiance.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Good Hard Look is the fascinating, fictional account of Flannery O'Connor's last years, settled in her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. O'Connor suffered from lupus, and she fled home to her family's farm to write and raise a menagarie of birds, including peacocks. While the reader is treated to a wonderful portrayal of O'Connor, Ann Napolitano creates a moving story featuring other memorable characters: Cookie, the hometown queen who despised Flannery; her husband, Melvin, a New Yorker trying to navigate small town Georgia; Lona, a seamstress who falls in love with a boy more than half her age; and Gigi, Lona's daughter who pays the price for it all.While I haven't read much by Flannery O'Connor (side note: something to be rectified!), the story line of A Good Hard Look reminds me of the stories I have read by O'Connor. Each character makes a decision, knowing the consequences, and as the story evolves, tragedy strikes. The tragedies open up new lives and new decisions for the characters, and you hope they learn from their past and move on to happier times.A Good Hard Look is divided into two concurrent stories. First, there's the story of Cookie, Melvin and Flannery. Cookie and Melvin are recently married and settled into Milledgeville. Melvin is a New Yorker at heart, and despite his wife's wishes, he strikes up a secret friendship with Flannery. For Melvin, Flannery is like the city - spontaneous, honest and forthright. Second, there's the story of Lona and Joe. Lona is a lonely, pot-smoking seamstress who agrees to take on her friend's 17-year-old son, Joe, as an assistant. As they spend time together, they become attracted to each other. Their romance culminates until a a fateful afternoon begins a chain reaction of tragedies for their families - as well as the lives of Cookie, Melvin and Flannery.Expertly written and beautifully rendered, Ann Napolitano draws the reader into the lives of these characters and creates a story of love and loss. Equally important, she sheds light on one of American's most talented, and perhaps unsung, writers. I highly recommend A Good Hard Look to readers who enjoy literary fiction and stories about the American South.
PamelaBarrett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ann Napolitano has written a novel that is as good and as uncomfortable as one of Flannery O¿Connor¿s stories. A Good Hard Look recreates Flannery¿s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia in the 1960¿s. The story starts the night before the wedding of the town¿s most beautiful Southern Bell, Cookie Himmel and her wealthy fiancé Melvin Whiteson. Cookie has everything planned; she knows what she wants in life, and Melvin thinks he is ready to start over in her world. Until he meets Flannery O¿Connor, whose brutal honesty and her revealing descriptions of the people around her, has always upset Cookie. At the time of the wedding, Flannery, who suffered from lupus, is home and recuperating on her family farm, Andalusia. She is under the care of her mother Regina, and surrounded by her beloved peacocks. That night, the peacocks¿ unearthly cries start a ruckus upsetting the town and the wedding guests. They are an important element of this tale, their voices do more than disturb the peace; they set up the underlying emotional current that leads them all to tragedy. Ann¿s book is an unflinching look at human nature and why it¿s so hard to change. It¿s true to life characters stayed in my thoughts long after I finished the last page. Caution: there are adult situations and one character smokes marijuana. I read an advanced uncorrected copy so I can¿t quote any of the fabulous lines Ann wrote, but her imagery grabs your heart. I received this book through Amazon Vine.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sandiek More than 1 year ago
The local celebrity in Milledgeville, Georgia, is Flannery O’Connor. Raised in the town, Flannery moved to New York to pursue a writing career. She is making headway when she receives the same diagnosis of lupus that killed her father. Flannery’s disease moves quickly and at the age of twenty-five, she is back home in Milledgeville at the family farm, Andalusia. She spends her time writing and raising peacocks; the fierce, proud birds touching a chord in her. She is the local star, yet feared by many of the town for her ability to see through the artifice with which most of us surround our lives. As O’Connor was known to say: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” While Flannery is the most famous inhabitant, she is not necessarily the most influential. That would be the power couple of Cookie and Melvin Whiteson. Cookie grew up in town, the ‘it’ girl who was the most popular in high school and who won all the trophies and prizes. She went North after school and returned with Melvin, an extremely wealthy man who wants to marry her. Their wedding is the year’s most talked about event, and also the place where Melvin and Flannery meet. They strike up a friendship that Cookie is unaware of and would never approve of. Cookie spends her time organizing everything worth organizing in town and is recognized as the woman who makes things happen. Lona Waters is as far in character from Cookie as it is possible to be. Lona has drifted through life, married to Bill Waters, an ambitious policeman. She has a drapery business and spends her time making window treatments for the wealthy of the town. Yet, Cookie, Flannery and Lona all are brought together in an afternoon of tragedy. Afterwards, none of the women or the men in their lives are the same. Ann Napolitano has created a masterful portrayal of Southern life and more, the portrayal of how most of us move through life, living it but never really experiencing it to the fullest. The characters are compellingly drawn, while the tragedy that defines the book is foreshadowed in such a way that when it occurs, it seems inevitable. Yet, the characters and their lives also have hope, leaving the reader shaken and better for having read it. This book is highly recommended for all readers; a powerful novel that redefines how individuals can face life and its hardships.
MadelynFair More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book--it was a literary, can't-put-it-down, beautiful work. I was first drawn to it by my passion for O'Connor's works. I've read Gooch's biography of her, and some of O'Connor's letters, and I've also walked through O'Connor's Savannah home on a personal tour that was unforgettable, imprinting the young Flannery on my mind forever. So with this background, I probably would be a severe critic if this work did not measure up. Napolitano captured Flannery. The most powerful passages are those when Napolitano describes O'Connor's writing process--those seem straight from heaven, almost as if Flannery approved them. Napolitano got inside the writer's mind and spoke truth about the pain of artistic birth and finding the right words. I also enjoyed the other characters, their arcs, and the violence that plagued each of them--very O'Connor, very honest, very believable despite the outrageous moments (like O'Connor's work--the events seemed logical, grace and sin-filled consequence, where all fall short and yet are still bathed in holy light). My only critiques are the stilted nature of O'Connor and Whiteson's interactions (I didn't quite believe their attraction to one another, when they were together) and some of the cliched similes. Many comparisons were brilliant. These are minor issues, the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars.
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Meshugenah More than 1 year ago
The premise was really interesting, but the writing and character's circumstances were too predictable and cliche for me.