book review: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look: A NovelThe basics: A Good Hard Look takes a good hard look at Milledgeville, Georgia and its quirky cast of characters, including Flannery O'Connor.

My thoughts: It's no secret I often adore novels with real people as characters. A fictional look at Flannery O'Connor and the town of Milledgeville (and likely the inspiration for some of her own fiction)? I was sold. Imagine my surprise when Flannery was my least favorite part of this novel. She was fine, but either Napolitano was afraid to emphasize the character of Flannery or she assumed her readers would bring that knowledge to this novel. There's certainly an argument for either, but in this novel, the rest of the ensemble shined.

The novel opens with the wedding of Cookie and Melvin, a New Yorker moving to Milledgeville to make his wife happy. Cookie hated New York and wanted to come home. Melvin's parents are dead, and he is wealthy enough to have options. Cookie has a firm dislike of Flannery, and Melvin initially struggles to understand the politics and opinions of this small town. Melvin was my favorite character in this novel. I appreciated his perspective as an outsider, but there was just something about him, regardless of his place, I was drawn to.

I'm not normally a big fan of Southern fiction, which shocks many people. I lived in Atlanta for thirteen years (although not a continuous thirteen years, of course, given my nomadic ways), but I never considered myself Southern. In many ways, A Good Hard Look is more of a small-town novel than a Southern one. There was a certain quaintness and placelessness to it that helped enhance the story for me.

While Flannery herself wasn't a fascinating character, her books were a character in their own right. Whether the other characters read them because they hate Flannery or love her, her stories have a power in Milledgeville. As a reader, it's always a pleasure to experience books with the characters:
"The reading was not enjoyable--the librarian said, you wouldn't want to take these to the beach--but it felt important."
I keep my reading mostly literary even when on vacation, and A Good Hard Look is no exception. It has a little bit of something for everyone: small-town life, a wedding, drugs, a writer, animals, disease, and quite a few surprises.

Favorite passage: "Melvin liked the idea that something he told Flannery might appear in a book. His life was a messy compilation of moments that didn't fit together. If Flannery wove them into a narrative, they would have cohesion, and significance. He would be able to read about himself, and all that was inexplicable in real life would be explained."

The verdict: As a novel of small town drama, I enjoyed A Good Hard Look and its vibrant characters. As a novel about Flannery O'Connor, it was different than expected, which is pretty powerful in itself and would likely make Flannery herself happy. In A Good Hard Look, the ordinary is far more extraordinary than fame.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length:336 pages
Publication date: July 7, 2011
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Find out more about Ann Napolitano on her website. For more opinions on A Good Hard Look, follow its virtual tour. Already convinced? Buy A Good Hard Look from an independent bookstore or from Amazon in hardback (Kindle version.)

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  1. I knew I wanted to read this book! I kept looking at the cover and could not for the life of me remember why I wanted it, but was too lazy to look up cover information. But yes - Flannery O'Connor. I love books with real people as fictional characters as well.

  2. I can only take small doses of Southern fiction as well. However, this one does sound pretty good. The Flannery O'Connor has me curious.

  3. I have read a fair bit about and by Flannery O'Conner, so this book has me curious for a lot of reasons. I also simply love the cover. It sounds like you were pleased with it, even though it defied your expectations, which is awesome. I am going to be looking for this one when I can. It promises to be quite a read for me.

  4. Hm, I'll have to get this! I'm not totally a fan of Southern fic but I do love Flannery and even if she's not so great in this book, you've sold me on Melvin. I too love the cover!

  5. Looks like a winner to me. And fun factoid of the day: Milledgeville is where Julia Roberts' character was from in Pretty Woman. Woot!

  6. I love Southern fiction and this one sounds incredibly unusual. I am looking forward to checking it out!

  7. Good review, it sounds like an interesting read!

  8. I'm really looking forward to this one! Enjoy must, must, must read Maine.

  9. I like that you mention this book is more "small-town" fiction rather than southern fiction - I'm much more likely to read and enjoy it in that case.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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