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Cookie grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she was the homecoming and prom queen, and voted most popular girl in her high school. But after graduation she fled to New York City where she spent two years toiling as a retail clerk and questioning her future until she met Melvin Whiteson on a bench in Central Park. A wealthy international banker, Melvin agreed to leave his home to marry Cookie and start a life with her back in Milledgeville.

It is the early 1960’s and author Flannery O’Connor lives at Andalusia, a farm just outside Milledgeville, with her mother, Regina, and a large, noisy party of peacocks, including the one she calls “The General.” Flannery has been forced to return home after being diagnosed with lupus at the age of twenty-five. She now walks with crutches and spends most of her time on the porch of their farmhouse with her typewriter, working on her latest novel.

Lona is a local window coverings seamstress whose daughter, Gigi, still spends every afternoon with “Miss Mary” Treadle, her former babysitter, even though Gigi, now in high school, is far past the age of needing supervision. But she is so attached to Miss Mary that she loves spending time with her and the arrangement frees Lona to enjoy a hour of solitude — during which she smokes pot — just before her husband, Bill, a police sergeant with dreams of being the chief, returns home from work.

Miss Mary’s son, Joe, is a senior in high school. After a recent growth spurt, he has become withdrawn, sullen, and shy. He no longer participates in school activities. Worried about her only child, Miss Mary asks Lona to put Joe to work after school three days per week, in exchange for all of the “babysitting” she has done with Gigi. Lona cannot say no, and the arrangement begins awkwardly with the two of them sharing a joint, but no conversation. Over time, however, their mutual affection grows, eventually leading to tragic results that profoundly ppimpact everyone around them.


Author Ann Napolitano
An unlikely friendship between Melvin and Flannery evolves after Flannery asks him to give her driving lessons, and sets the stage for the action that follows in A Good Hard Look. Melvin is well aware that Cookie abhors Flannery from the moment she expresses shock at seeing Flannery and Regina in attendance at their wedding. Cookie never explains to Melvin why she is so repulsed by Flannery, but rather than upset Cookie, Melvin begins spending time at Andalusia without Cookie’s knowledge. For Melvin, it is the one place where, among the fascinating and beautiful peacocks, he can escape the dull job he has taken with an insurance agency, relax, and enjoy Flannery’s company.

Lona has been adrift in her marriage and her life for years, escaping by smoking pot each afternoon, unbeknownst to her stringent and ambitious husband. Intimacy with Bill has become rare and perfunctory. When Cookie begins decoarting the new house she and Melvin are settling into, Lona is assured work for months to come and she looks forward to spending afternoons in the Whitesons’ residence, alone with Joe, while Cookie attends her various club meetings.

Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have, and then use it.
~ Flannery O’Connor in A Good Hard Look

Cookie never found happiness or fulfillment in New York, and has returned to a life with which she is comfortable and adept, even though she can never fully escape her feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, especially when she sees herself reflected in Flannery’s wise, confident eyes. She seeks success and validation through her ambitions for Melvin — she wants him to become mayor one day — and her participation, along with her mother, in local clubs. Her pet project is getting Flannery’s books banned in Milledgeville because some of the characters are based upon the town’s citizens and the depictions quite unflattering, at least from Cookie’s vantage point.

Author Ann Napolitano uses an unusual premise and some of the details about real-life author Flannery O’Connor’s life to create an original and poignant story about a group of Southern small-town residents who are drifting through their lives without purpose or intent. Their poor choices have tragic reverberations for each of them. The survivors are forced to regroup, reevaluate, and contemplate the kind of future they really want.

Napolitano’s eclectic, colorful cast of characters make the story interesting, as does her description of live in a tiny little town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. At first, the action ambles along at about the same pace as hot, lazy Georgia afternoon. But once the characters have become familiar and their paths established, Napolitano picks up the pace and, after one pivotal moment that forever changes all of their lives, readers will not be able to put the book down until they learn what the aftermath is like for each of them.

Will each of them be able to accept responsibility for his/her own part in what transpired on that fateful day? Will each of the characters come to terms with his/her own choices and find peace? Will Melvin and Cookie be able to forgive each other and move forward together or will Cookie remain mired in the routine to which she is accustomed in Milledgeville while Melvin tries to pick up the pieces of his life back in New York City? As Flannery remarks to Melvin during one of their visits about the characters in one of her fictional works, “Maybe [Napolitano] left them on their way to a happy ending. . . . 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.”

I read A Good Hard Look in conjunction with the 2011 Read ‘n’ Review and Outdo Yourself Reading Challenges.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of A Good Hard Look free of charge from the author in conjunction with the review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Pingback: Ann Napolitano, author of A Good Hard Look, on tour July 2011 | TLC Book Tours

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