The Good House is not Ann Leary’s first novel – she’s already penned Outtakes from a Marriage, as well as her memoir An Innocent, A Broad – and yet she is still often dismissed as just a ‘celebrity wife’, thanks to her actor husband, the wonderful Denis Leary.
So what’s a woman got to do to be taken seriously as an author in her own right? Well, if The Good House isn’t enough of a persuasion, I don’t know what will be.
This latest novel centres around Hildy Good, a middle-aged, divorced estate agent who has lived in the same privileged Massachusetts town, Wendover, her whole life.
She’s a wry, poised character and well-loved by her community and by her two grownup daughters, but they recently disappointed her by staging an unnecessary ‘intervention’ and labelling her an alcoholic, forcing her to go to rehab and then spend the rest of her days being tee total at parties so as not to alarm the neighbours.
A wonderful depiction of life inside the mind of a real, complicated and scared woman in the grips of a harrowing addictionSo far, so convincing. But Hildy hides booze in the back of her ex-husband’s abandoned car in the garage. Hildy drinks a bottle of wine when she gets home from her ‘sober’ parties. Hildy does things she can’t remember in the morning.
Hildy is in denial. But, as things go from bad to worse and her life spirals out of control, we get to understand that being an alcoholic is not as black-and-white as we might naively assume.
She does have good days – even good weeks – and it’s not like she’s the only one in that town that could do with a healthy stint in rehab. But then again, all we have to rely on is Hildy’s own first person testimony.
Her role as unreliable narrator is not only brilliantly done, but crucial to the book’s success. Although we don’t remain fooled throughout, she’s certainly convincing at first.
It’s only once we realise she is in denial that her blackouts, hallucinations and paranoia really work on us: by the end, we feel as lost and out of control as she does.
In fact, one of the novel’s finest, most heart-racing moments is when the kindness and sincerity of another main character is suddenly called majorly into doubt, and we aren’t sure if it’s Hildy’s paranoia talking or if her lack of judgement means something much more sinister is about to happen.
Hildy’s story is intertwined with the troubled lives of some of her closest Wendover residents, from Cassie and her severely disabled son, Jake, and local beauty Rebecca’s affair – which gets more and more disturbing as the story unfolds.
Just as crucial to the story is the love story between Hildy and her old friend, Frank. Too often novels focus on the romantic liaisons of the young, but Leary is refreshingly candid and unapologetic, and the story is greatly enriched for it.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the story is the way the location, Wendover, with repeated references to its history as the site of the Salem witch trials.
The atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, trickery and the unexplained pervades the novel, with references to psychiatry, psychics, and people believing what they want to hear.
By its close, the novel rendered me genuinely sick and disturbed. It’s a wonderful depiction of life inside the mind of a real, complicated and scared woman in the grips of a harrowing addiction, and it’s a page-turner from start to finish.
The setting is exciting and stuffed full of money, and the surrounding ocean flows as steadily as the prose. This is not one to be missed.