Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ann Leary looks deeply into a New England past


The Good House

In her latest novel, The Good House (304 pages, Picador, $15), Ann Leary tells the story of Hildy Good, a middle-aged realtor in a coastal town north of Boston.  Hildy takes pride that her family can trace its origins back to the early witch trials in Massachusetts Colony, and as she tells her story, she seems more and more like some kind of witch herself.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair.  We have the story from her perspective, and we learn a lot of her secrets along the way.  One secret is that she keeps a case of wine in the trunk of an MG in the garage.  She stashed it out there because she’s been in rehab—after a family intervention—and she doesn’t want anyone, but especially her daughters or her now-gay ex-husband, to find out that she’s drinking again.  Of course, she feels that there is no harm to having a glass or two of wine, but that’s utterly self-deceptive as we quickly realize.  The more Hildy drinks, the less likely she is to remember anything she has done.

Her position as realtor in the small town is threatened by the expansion of one of the national chains, and she is struggling to stay afloat.  She can’t let anyone know that either, and in her buttoned up New England way, she tries to do what she can to get whatever clients seem likely to come her way.

And otherwise she watches her friends and acquaintances in the town careen into wild misbehaviors that she both chuckles over and condemns.  At times, in fact, in her inebriated states, she sometimes could be said to cause the crises herself.

All along she is being courted by the local garbage man, whom she has known all her life.  She finds the man attractive in his way, but she can approach him only when she is drunk and able to silence the voices in her head that tell her he’s beneath her.

All this makes wonderful reading.  Leary is great at making the town so vivid that it is almost another character itself, with its embarrassing past and brooding secrets in the present.

Many of the events of the plot are merely of soap opera quality, but the way Hildy takes them in and the manner in which they unfold here make them far more than that.  This is a great novel about a small town, and about the people that manage to be larger than the town seems to be shaping them to be.

Ann Leary

The Good House is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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