3/14/2013 - Hildy Good is a real-estate agent in Wendover, Mass., a town that is fictional but barely. Every New Englander knows a Wendover, a place populated by “townies” who’ve never lived anywhere else, who know little of the world at large, but everything that’s ever happened in their craggy zip code.
That’s Hildy: the consummate townie. She’s also a mother, a grandmother, a divorcee, a descendent of a hanged Salem “witch.” And, possibly, a lush, although we can’t really be sure of that. Everyone but Hildy seems to think she’s an alcoholic, and her daughters once delivered her to rehab against her will, but Hildy believes herself to be a responsible drinker. Her evening glass (or two or three) of wine, retrieved from a stash hidden in the trunk of an MG, is a soothing friend at the end of a busy day.
And truly, halfway into Ann Leary’s new novel, The Good House, the reader wants to join Hildy in a drink. Never before has California pinot noir sounded so inviting: “My heart, my mind, even my skin and bones seemed to shake off their brittle edginess. I was softening. It’s what wine does for me, and what’s wrong with shedding one’s armor once a day, especially in the warm company of an old friend?”
Leary, who lives in Connecticut, has confessed to being a “wicked bad alcoholic” on her blog, so she brings an intimate knowledge of dependency to this tale of a 60-something woman seeking to fill a yawning void. But while Hildy may or may not run on alcohol, The Good House has other fuel. It is the story of an engaging web of relationships between New England newbies and townies, told in first-person as only a real-estate agent could.
“I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions,” Hildy begins her story.
This is a line Leary lifted from a contractor who once said that to her, practically verbatim. The author told Redbook magazine that the idea intrigued her, and she built The Good House from that premise, weaving in her own experience as a drinker and equestrian. (Hildy’s closest friend throughout most of the novel is Rebecca McAlister, a newcomer who is an accomplished rider, and the story of how she charms a newborn foal and its exhausted mother is as memorable a fictional vignette as they come.) A couple of awkward romances are not quite as appealing, but everyone’s existential loneliness has to be assuaged somehow, even in a made-up town.
The Good House is Leary’s third novel, following An Innocent, A Broad and Outtakes from a Marriage. It seems unfair that a blue-eyed blonde who could be working as model should be so gifted with words, but it’s impossible to begrudge her the novel’s success. (She’s a volunteer EMT and says she lives with her family, four dogs, three horses, and “an angry cat named Sneakers.”) Movie rights have been optioned by a filmmaker who’s already musing publicly about Meryl Streep as Hildy Good. Perhaps they will film in Marblehead, Mass., where Leary lived for a while as a teen and presumably did unwitting research for this book.
Leary’s power as a novelist is the strength of her dialogue and the believability of the narrative. It sounds not so much like she wrote this book but like she lived in the real town of Wendover for a few years and followed people around, writing down everything that they said. What results is not edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, but there’s enough mystery afoot to keep us turning the page to find out what happens to people to whom we’ve grown attached.
Is Hildy an alcoholic or not? Is she, like her infamous ancestor, a witch, or is her ability to read people nothing more than a well-honed parlor game? Is Rebecca, who stops watches and clocks with her bizarrely magnetic presence, something more than she seems, too? And will the relationships among the people of Wendover come to ruin or continue to tick? Ask your friendly neighborhood real-estate agent; she knows. B+