Review: “The Good House”… Is Very Good

Book jacket for "The Good House" by Ann Leary.Sixty-year-old Hildy Good descends from an accused witch, who was executed during the infamous Salem witch trials. It is a story she tells to clients, when she’s looking for a good local hook. Hildy is the most successful real estate agent – or to hear her tell it, the most successful businesswoman – in her hometown of Wendover, Massachusetts. She is also an alcoholic.

It is customary to preface “alcoholic” with the word “recovering”, but readers of The Good House by Ann Leary will have to dig pretty deep to find any hint of recovery going on with Hildy.

The book begins with Hildy grudgingly attending a cocktail party, and sipping club soda. Since she returned from rehab at Hazelton two years ago, she no longer drinks… in public. It turns out she has stashed cases of wine in her cellar, and the trunk of the MG her ex-husband abandoned in her garage when he left her. Nearly every night, she holds a “party of one”.

The book offers plenty of plot twists-and-turns to engage readers: conflicts between locals and out-of-towners, simmering professional rivalries, family friction and tragedy, extramarital affairs and some late-middle-age nookie. Most of it is funny stuff. (Ann Leary is married to comedian Denis Leary, and is damn witty in her own right.) No character is more engaging than Hildy Good.

Readers spend a lot of time inside Hildy’s head, as she equivocates and justifies her drinking habits in ways that are both eye-roll inducing, and heart breaking. She lays out a set of rules that – as long as she abides by them – prove to her that she’s not an alcoholic. She then proceeds to violate them all, in short order.

“Most nights, I just have a few glasses,” Hildy explains. She then recounts that, after the cocktail party, “by the time I had poured the last of the bottle into my glass, I was fully transformed. I was myself.”  All this, without a hint of irony, or self-awareness.

Hildy is prone to blackouts, something doctors warn her is common in the later stages of alcoholism, but she remains in denial. “Is a blackout really a blackout, if nobody is there to see it? Not even yourself? I say no. It’s like a tree falling in the woods. Who cares?”

She claims she no longer drinks as frequently as she did before Hazelton: “Not every night anymore. Not every night, no.” Yet aside from a brief attempt to go cold turkey after an especially humiliating blackout, when her secret is nearly discovered by one her daughters (whose intervention led to her trip to rehab), each day she is chomping at the bit at 5 p.m. (A Hildy rule: No drinking before 5 o’clock. Starting earlier makes one an alcoholic.)

Hildy vows not to drive or use the telephone after drinking alone. “What a relief to not have to wake up to all that bullshit to undo.”  But it happens throughout the book, when she blacks out. If she recognizes her descent deeper and deeper into addiction, she doesn’t even admit it to herself.

If you’ve ever known an alcoholic, or someone who abuses alcohol, you’ll recognize some of Hildy’s behavior. In the rare cases when she extends her party-of-one to include a friend, she refills her own wineglass surreptitiously, assuming her friend won’t notice. I’ve seen people do this. Initially I assumed they were being clueless or rude, but later realized their goal was to hide how much they drank. (They were not successful.)

Hildy is also proud of her ability to disguise her delicate, morning-after condition by avoiding eye contact and using breath mints – but those who encounter her day-to-day aren’t fooled. And when her friends mention late-night visits and phone calls she can’t remember, she thinks she fakes it well enough to avoid suspicion. (She doesn’t.)

Of course, as Hildy’s secretive drinking becomes less of a secret, there’s bound to be a crisis – a “jackpot” event that she can neither avoid, nor lie her way out of. You pray that THIS is her rock bottom, and that she’ll finally see and accept the truth that she is an alcoholic, in need of professional help.

It’s interesting to note that Ann Leary is herself a recovering alcoholic, so she knows whereof she writes. The rationalizations and distorted truths that bounce around inside Hildy’s head ring authentic. Reviewers raved about the book when it was published back in March, and I hear it is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep (who else!) and Robert De Niro.

My suggestion: Pour yourself a glass of wine (not two), sometime after 5 p.m., and get to know Hildy and the eccentric residents of Wendover. The Good House is a wicked good story. (Sorry!)

Choosing Sides

Book jacket for Hellhound On His Trail, by Hampton SidesI usually experience a mild euphoria when I reach the last chapter of a really good book. There’s a sense of accomplishment — especially if it’s long or has been a bit of a slog — as well as excitement, because finishing a book means it’s time to start a new one.

I have a general methodology for choosing what’s next on my reading list. I have a fondness for nonfiction, but rarely read two nonfictions in a row. I prefer to switch things up a bit. And while I have a Kindle, which I love, I also have a bookcase that is sagging under the weight of dozens of books I have not yet read. So I try to read at least one old-school book that used to be a tree, for every two eBooks.

Alas, I never seem to make much of a dent in that bookshelf because whenever I pass an independent bookstore, I feel compelled to buy at least a paperback.

It’s like being on a book diet; even if I manage to drop a few books, over time I end up adding back the same number… and then some. And they all go straight to my bookshelf. (Ha! See what I did there?)

Every Christmas, I drag my mom to the Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, with its creaky oak floors and corner dedicated to the picturesque, 170-year-old village of Chagrin. It’s the same bookstore I shopped in as a kid, and I am a slave to its “staff picks”.

I’m not ready for a world where this and other venerable little shops like Book Passage (Corte Madera), Books Inc. and Browser Books (San Francisco), and Copperfield’s (Sonoma and Napa Counties) don’t exist. So, I try to do my part.

Book jacket for Americana, by Hampton SidesThis brings me to today, when I finished reading Americana: Dispatches From The New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. As usual, I felt accomplishment because… well, 30 essays is a lot of essays! Plus, it’s a great collection. “Waiting for Liddy” and “In Darkest Bohemia” are bitingly funny, while “Points of Impact”, featuring the harrowing accounts of 9/11 survivors, sent shivers down my spine.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to this book, because it’s the last one by Hampton Sides on my reading list.

Is Hampton Sides a great name for a writer or what? He grew up in Memphis and now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico – but with that name, I always picture him sitting at an old typewriter in a mountain cabin in New Hampshire, or upstate New York.

New Mexico is proud of its adopted son. When I visited Taos a few years ago, I stopped at yet another lovely independent bookstore – Moby Dickens – and asked the kind women who work there for a recommendation. They made a strong pitch for Blood and Thunder, Sides’ acclaimed biography of controversial frontiersman Kit Carson, who lived in Taos (his home is now a museum) and is buried there.

Portrait of Author Hampton SidesOne of the shopkeepers reminded the other that Hampton Sides had visited the store once as part of a book tour. Perhaps reluctant to cheapen his literary reputation, she sheepishly added, “and he is… quite handsome”. Truth. Book jackets do not lie.

My favorite book from Hampton Sides is Hellhound On His Trail, a gripping account of James Earl Ray’s stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination and the manhunt for Ray that followed. I was consumed by that book, and could not put it down. It is remarkably suspenseful, considering the reader obviously knows how the story ends. In fact, Sides has been forced to defend the book as nonfiction, because some readers assume he embellished the facts to juice up the story. In fact, Hellhound On His Trail is a factual account based on painstaking research. The rest… well, that’s just great writing.

So now comes the fun part; it’s time to choose my next book. Unless Hampton Sides publishes something tomorrow, it’ll be either The Reliable Wife or one of the three Ann Leary books on my Kindle that are just aching to finally be read.

What about you? Read any good books lately?