Napolitano's second novel (after Within Arm's Reach) is a study in the rural milieu of Milledgeville, Ga., whose famous resident is known not only for her writing, but also for keeping peacocks and for other colorful proclivities. Wealthy New Yorker Melvin Whiteson meets Flannery O'Connor at his wedding to the beautiful but insecure Cookie, who has persuaded him to relocate to her hometown. Melvin forms an unlikely friendship with Flannery, and keeps it secret from his wife, who's intimidated by the author. While explaining one of her stories to Melvin, Flannery telegraphs Napolitano's primary theme: "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." Cookie slowly becomes an integral part of high society by serving on numerous committees and creating an enviable house. She enlists the interior design help of Lona Waters, a lonely seamstress stuck in a lifeless marriage with a police officer, and Lona soon rediscovers her purpose in the arms of a 17-year-old boy, an impetuous act that will have a great impact on a number of Milledgeville residents. 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. (July)
"In A Good Hard Look, Ann Napolitano creates 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." - O Magazine
"Napolitano's protagonist is a marvelously outspoken, uncompromising force who becomes the impetus for several fictional Milledgeville residents to reassess and radically alter their lives…[Napolitano] has spun an absorbing, old-fashioned tale about how, as in Flannery O'Connor's stories, ‘Grace changes a person….And change is painful.'" -The Washington Post
"To brand this a quaint period piece…would be doing Napolitano's evocative tale of friendship and community a disservice." - Entertainment Weekly
"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…' Does one's integrity ever lie in what he's unable to do?' O'Connor once asked. 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." - Atlanta Journal
"From almost the first page, this novel seemed real. I could feel, somehow, the characters' seemingly pre-ordained retreat from grace as a deceptively simple plot unfolded in Milledgeville, Ga., where O'Connor returned to live out her final days in the early 1950s…. This narrative is a great story, almost light at times, often very funny-but always with the knowledge that this propped-up happiness too shall end…. there will be survivors, and they will find a touch more grace in their lives. What is less obvious is that Napolitano will somehow make you one of those survivors thinking about your own rocky road to redemption." - Jackson Free Press
"The fact that an at-her-prime, seriously ill Flannery O'Connor is one of its main characters, while it might have overwhelmed a lesser novel, doesn't drown this one; Napolitano doesn't seek to emulate O'Connor's style (other than by being, also, pointedly southern), but crafts, though characters (stunt-cast or no) her own powerful argument for living honestly…muggy, deeply enthralling, and worth a read." - Booklist
"Napolitano doesn't attempt to mimic Flannery O'Connor's writing style, turning instead to her own lyric take on the human condition. She's not written a biography of Flannery, though the character is well rooted in research….While [Flannery's] interaction is key to the story, she is a catalyst. One cannot imagine the novel without her, but she is just one in a cast of fully fleshed- out and entrancing characters."
"Ann Napolitano's second novel, A Good Hard Look, is haunted by those peacocks and by O'Connor herself. Though Napolitano doesn't try to write like O'Connor - her gentle, quietly elegant prose is worlds away from the powerful, often devastatingly harsh Southern Gothic world in which O'Connor dwelled - her book nonetheless emerges as a graceful tribute, not only to a writer, but to a time and place." - Seattle Times
Flannery O'Connor fans will be drawn to this fictionalized version of her later years as a strong-willed, deeply lonely genius.
In the early 1960s, when wealthy New Yorker Melvin Whiteson moves to Milledgeville to marry his sweetheart Cookie Himmel, Flannery is living with her mother on the family farm, struggling to complete her second novel and suffering increasingly from the lupus that eventually kills her. A lifelong poultry aficionado, Flannery is also raising peacocks. In the novel's striking first scene, Cookie and Melvin are awakened on the eve of their wedding by the peacocks' din, a foreshadowing of what's to happen to the couple. They love each other but do not understand each other. Emotionally fragile Cookie has considered Flannery her nemesis ever since she readWise Bloodand felt exposed in the worst light as the character Sabbath Lily. A cutting remark Flannery made at Cookie's high-school awards ceremony so humiliated the girl that she left town as soon as she graduated. Sporting her new rich and handsome husband, Cookie has returned desperate to prove to Milledgeville what a glamorous success she has become and throws herself into community activities. Sophisticated but aimless Melvin finds himself at loose ends in the small town. Soon he finds himself drawn to Flannery in a platonic but intense relationship he hides from Cookie. When Cookie has a baby, she and Melvin begin to re-establish their connection, but ultimately Melvin cannot stay away from Flannery. Meanwhile, Cookie has hired the deputy sheriff's wife Lona Waters, another lonely outsider, to make curtains for their new impressive home. Inevitably these unhappy lives—Lona has begun a dangerous relationship of her own—wind together until violent, senseless deaths occur, propelling characters into dark nights of the soul but also the possibility of Flannery O'Connor–like grace.
The tone and careful use of language certainly recalls O'Connor, but Napolitano (Within Arm's Reach, 2004)takes too many shortcuts around her plot and characters to bring the novel to life.