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 fiancée, 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 truly live, and she seizes it with both hands.
Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, these 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 Flannery’s observation that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
Here is an essay about Ann’s visit to Flannery’s home after the publication of A Good Hard Look.
- A Good Hard Look was chosen for one of NPR’s best of 2011 lists.
- Selected by Lemuria Bookstore (Mississippi), The Bookstore (Illinois) and Queen Anne Books (Washington) as one of the best books of 2011 and included in the inaugural “Turnrow Twenty” by the Turn Row Book Co. (Mississippi).
- Placed on the Southern Independent Bestseller list twice during summer 2011.
- Selected as Indie Next List Pick (July) and by Southern booksellers as a summer Okra Pick.
- Recommended on O Magazine’s Summer 2011 Reading List.
- Featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
“Using O’Connor as a central character in this novel is a stroke of genius.”—NPR
“Ann Napolitano has written a mesmerizing tale of southern life, ambition and destiny that will leave readers dazed and shaken, as if they’d stared directly into the Georgia sun.”—Bookreporter.com
“[A Good Hard Look] is a powerful and touching work about truth, forgiveness, and redemption as told through the experiences of Flannery O’Connor, a woman who chose to live by her own terms in spite of incredible personal adversity.”—The Wichita Eagle
“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… she [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
“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
“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.”—The Denver Post
“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 Constitution Journal
“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.”—The Seattle Times
“To brand this a Southern novel, or a quaint period piece, would be doing Napolitano’s evocative tale of friendship and community a disservice.”—Entertainment Weekly Magazine
“In A Good Hard Look (Penguin), 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
“I was transfixed and transported by this beautiful, wholly original novel. Ann Napolitano has brought one of America’s beloved literary figures to life, weaving her into a story filled with unforgettable characters who are at once deeply flawed and deeply sympathetic. This is a book one wants to savor slowly for its language, but is also a page-turner in the best sense of the word.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“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.”—Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
“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!”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
“This is a purely gorgeous book, completely unafraid, that takes its own good, hard look at what it means to forgive, to be redeemed, and to stumble back home. Ann Napolitano’s Flannery O’Connor is flawed, brilliant, devout, and entirely human. What a bold, wise writer; I am in love with her Milledgeville, her Flannery, and her hope-soaked world-view.”—Joshilyn Jackson, NYT bestselling author of Backseat Saints
“Ann Napolitano has an eye for the nuances and quirks of character and the decisions her people make are both surprising and true. The most remarkable feat of characterization in her new novel just might be the portrayal of Flannery O’Connor. A Good Hard Look is potent end to end. It’s downright electric whenever Miss Flannery is on the page. A more than fitting fictional tribute to the south’s First Lady of Fiction.”—Michael Knight, author of The Typist
“Flannery O’Connor is both character and muse in A Good Hard Look. ‘Maybe I left them on their way to a happy ending,’ she says of the beleaguered and anguished souls in her own stories. The same might be said of the flawed and searching beings in Ann Napolitano’s novel, who grasp at some kind of grace under the revealing glare of the woman the world knows as one of the most revered American authors of the twentieth century.”—Kate Moses, author of Cakewalk and Wintering
“In a style often evocative of the great American writer herself, Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look is a fictionalized account of Flannery O’Connor’s life that pays homage to this woman who lived life on her terms, regardless of her circumstances. From the cast of characters caught in the harsh realities of everyday life, to the shattering events that change all of them, this is a stunning book that realizes there are often no happy endings, but reminds us that if we focus only on the pain, we fail to see its transformative powers.”—Dawn Braasch, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Martha’s Vineyard, MA
“It requires a delicate balance to insert a beloved Southern writer into a novel as a character, but Napolitano has achieved her goal with subtlety and grace. Flannery O’Connor is a minor but pivotal character in this novel set in Milledgeville. A very evocative and compelling examination of love and family. (And the peacocks are brilliant!)”—Jennie Turner-Collins, Joseph Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH
“Napolitano was introduced to Flannery O’Connor’s work while recuperating from a long illness. She learned her lessons well from that master storyteller and she has given us a complex novel, filled with flawed characters – including O’Connor herself – gothic plotting, and sublime writing. Unlike her mentor, Napolitano holds out just a hint of a possibility of a happy ending.”—Laura Key, Blue Elephant Book Shop, Decatur, GA
“Flannery O’Connor fans will devour A Good Hard Look. Readers who are not familiar with the great writer, will be mesmerized by Ann Napolitano’s brilliant gift of telling a story where every character is alive and breathing. This important book will make you want to holler at the people who populate the pages – and never look at peacocks the same for the rest of your life.”—Jake Reiss, The Alabama Booksmith, Birmingham, AL
“Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look starts out with a few diverse incidents establishing the themes which expand throughout this superb biographical novel of one of the South’s greatest fiction writers. The author’s rich imagination is fed by the several generations of her family’s contact with middle Georgia and even with Flannery and her mother, Georgia, which, no doubt, provides the authenticity pervading the book. Although Flannery O’Connor’s literary and personal history have been well examined, Napolitano shows an exquisite ability to capture the essence of mid-20th century Georgia and the fictional characters that live with Flannery. A true measure of this novel’s believability is when the reader continues to flesh out Flannery’s life after A Good Hard Look is put down, one is drawn to investigate happenings which only occurred in Napolitano’s mind. Some novelists might have been tempted to emulate Flannery’s Southern Gothic or Grotesque style; Napolitano treads lightly, letting tragedy work where it best fits. She captures both the joys and weaknesses of her characters that parallel Flannery’s belief, expressed throughout her writings and speech: Many times it is difficult to distinguish between blessings and curses. Flannery wrote that the basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. A Good Hard Look is an artful novel that is as electrifying as her peacocks and as magnetic as her life.”—Bill Threlfall, Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO
“A Good Hard Look is a brilliant, engaging novel about Flannery O’Connor’s final years and the odd and difficult relationships in her small southern town of Milledgeville that might very well have been models for her wonderful and disturbing fiction. I was moved by it and completely drawn into the characters and their deeply flawed humanity. I will now go back and reread O’Connor, with different eyes and a new appreciation for her gifts and the tragedy of a life cut short. Of course I know it is fiction, but I feel like Ann Napolitano understood and conveyed Flannery’s world and the truths behind her fiction. The novel is a gift to the reader, giving us all a new understanding of Grace.”—Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO
“Flannery O’Connor is on a short list of authors I re-read on a regular basis… every few years I’ll dive into her short stories and lose myself in her world, always uncovering some new wry insight or observation to enjoy. It was with both interest and trepidation, then, that I picked up Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look… I was wary of having her writing ‘ruined’ for me by a characterization that didn’t fit the (admittedly thinly informed) image I had of her. Curiosity won the day, though, and I’m glad it did! Napolitano’s Flannery is lovely, and while I’ll never know, really, exactly how ‘true to life’ she is, she feels right and real. Even aside from its famous protagonist, the book stands on its own as a clear evocation of a time and place: the mood and character of the town and its citizens are captured so well, not to mention the way she fits together all the nicely developed characters – with their foibles, triumphs, agonies and eccentricities – like a perfect, nuanced puzzle. I’ll be recommending A Good Hard Look to my lovers of southern writing and fine literature for sure.”—Lynne, Spellbinder Books, Bishop, CA
“I hated for A Good Hard Look to end. It made me go back and reread Wise Blood and other Flannery O’Connor and that’s a good thing!”—Joanne Sealy, Faulkner House, New Orleans, LA
“This book was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. Flannery O’Connor raises peacocks and suffers from lupus as she writes books and stories in her hometown of Milledgeville, GA, in the early 1960s. She befriends the husband of a young couple and in one afternoon their lives and that of another couple in town are torn apart. A fictional account of one of the south’s greatest authors, and one you don’t want to miss.”—Beth Carpenter, The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
“While A Good Hard Look is a fictional account of the final years of writer Flannery O’Connor, it is also a beautiful examination of a certain time and place. Women’s roles in the South were in painful transition, and Napolitano explores the consequences of following the pull of the heart, giving in to expectations or, as Flannery did, following the call to write. The story is beautifully written, with unexpected images and characters, and is impossible to put down. Full of the very charm, tradition, heartbreak and resilience of the culture it describes, A Good Hard Look is a wonderful novel.”—Leslie Reiner, Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL