In A Good Hard Look Napolitano has created a vivid and sympathetic fictional portrait of the iconic American writer Flannery O'Connor and her small hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. Around O'Connor revolves a cast of characters whose lives intersect, as they will in a small town, but it is the choices they make that inexorably pull them together in ways they'd never intend.
There's Southern beauty, Cookie Himmel, who has returned in triumph from a stint in New York City with a handsome and wealthy fiance, Melvin, in tow. Melvin believes he will found a purpose for his life in his marriage and in this small town, but he quickly discovers that the only lively company he can find is Flannery, whom Cookie has forbidden him to visit. Melvin can't understand Cookie's animosity to a woman who is basically an invalid, but Cookie has her reasons. We also meet unhappy Lona, the bored wife of a local policeman, who frets against the limitations of her life but doesn't know any other way to live. Minor characters that fill out the social and cultural life of Milledgeville round out and deepen the impact of even the smallest of interactions between the central figures of the story.
Napolitano opens a window on the life of this idyllic, sleepy Southern town and shows us that even the most ordered of lives can harbor the emotional underpinnings of tragedy: jealousy, complacency, and dishonesty. That ill-considered choices, even those that appear innocent, can lead to irrevocable consequences. That grace and forgiveness, though hard fought, can be found when we're willing to face up to what we have done.
Though Flannery O'Connor is a central character in this novel, you don't have to be familiar with her writing or even her own story to become fully immersed in A Good Hard Look. It is very likely, however, that you'll want to know more about O'Connor and about her writing once you've finished this novel. (Unless, of course, you decide to simply turn back to the first page and start all over again.)
Ann Napolitano has a beautiful website where you can learn more about A Good Hard Look and where you can read her very interesting blog Lives Well Lived. I hope you'll take a few minutes to explore it, especially the post about Flannery O'Connor.
Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor is a fascinating and highly readable biography of O'Connor. Highly recommended.