With its puff from J. Courtney Sullivan, Ann Leary’s The Good House looked a promising choice for my cold-befuddled brain – absorbing but relatively unchallenging. Set in the kind of small New England seaside town where families have lived for so long that there are coves named after them, it’s narrated by Hildy Good, successful realtor and descendent of a Salem witch. Hildy knows everyone in Wendover – what the inside of their houses look like, what they’re worth, what they get up to – and they know she likes a drink. Always on the look out for property to sell, she’s eyeing up the house she sold to Rebecca McAllister and her husband Brian. Rebecca seems unhappy, in need of a friend and Hildy steps into the breach becoming Rebecca’s confidante, learning secrets best kept to herself. Hildy has her own problems – she bought her house at the height of the boom and is heavily mortgaged, she’s divorced and lonely, and her listings have taken a hit since her daughters staged an intervention, packing her off to rehab. Hildy is determined that’s not going to happen again and anyway, she’s not an alcoholic.
Leary’s novel is as much about Hildy and her refusal to accept her alcoholism as it is about the events that play out in Wendover, although there is plenty of drama to unfold. What seems at first to be a wryly humorous take on life is gradually revealed as self-deception, blustering denial and in one particularly memorable scene, nightmarish paranoia, made all the more vivid for being told in Hildy’s own voice. Leary effectively summons up the claustrophobia of living in a small town where every one knows every one else’s business, and has done for generations. She has spoken openly about her own alcoholism, although I failed to spot this in the press release – that’s befuddlement for you – and so it came as a shock to me when I read the short interview at the end of the book, leaving me filled with respect and admiration. It’s a brave book, and with Michael Cunningham, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro on the case, I’m sure it will make a great film.