THE GOOD HOUSE is the third book from Ann Leary, wife of outrageous comedian and actor, Dennis. This book has become a word of mouth smash hit in the U.S. and Kernel Morgan Bell, rarely (if ever) one to give a perfect score to a book or movie has been swept away with her enjoyment of this small town mystery tale. It is out now from the fine folks at Allen and Unwin and we pass on thanks to them for sending us a copy for review. You can purchase THE GOOD HOUSE HERE or you could race out today and grab it from a book store as it would make a superb Mother’s Day present for tomorrow. Enjoy Morgan’s splendid review and happy reading……………JK.
BY MORGAN BELL
THE GOOD HOUSE, by Ann Leary, is the story of a nosey alcoholic real-estate agent, Hildy Good, a descendent of Salem Witch Trial victim Sarah Good. Hildy is in her sixties with adult children, and a friendly ex-husband, who has lived in the coastal New England town of Wendover the majority of her life. Wendover used to be a clam and shipbuilding town until thirty years ago, its main industries are now antiques and real estate, where townies sell and maintain waterfront properties to people with hedge-fund money.
Hildy openly tells us she tends to know everyone’s business and opens the novel saying “I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.” Great first line. It sets the scene for the web of secrets and lies that Hildy is at the centre of. In Wendover there are affairs, a missing child, the ghosts of lovers past, psychic readings, and a hidden cellar full of secret wine.
There is a brilliant scene at a dinner party with Hildy cold-reading a guest as a parlour trick, a skill passed down through generations of Good women. The technique is explained and is truly fascinating. At another time Hildy remembers her ex-husband saying that if she had been born at another time she would have been considered a witch. Hildy will still go for nude beach runs in the moonlight.
Hildy is critical and direct and believes herself to be honest and upstanding, but, in this new twist on the unreliable narrator, we see someone who misremembers or forgets actions she takes while she is drunk. Her inebriated behaviour can be wildly out of step with her sober self. She is confused and well-meaning but her little Jeckyll and Hyde streak creates a major element of the unknown when the mysteries of the town play out.
A key theme of the novel is unconditional motherly love and the distress caused to a woman when she feels she is losing her children. We look at Cassie Dwight with her struggles to care for a physically unmanageable autistic child Jake. And there is Rebecca McAllister, a champion equestrian rider who relates to a horse called Betty. Betty is a grey mare left alone in a field, driven mean and jealous from forced proximity to breeding horses, Betty steals another pony’s newborn colt.
Rebecca’s husband Brian considers her to be a bad luck charm, stopping watches and electronics with something strange within her. Rebecca is from a distant family and went to boarding school in Wendover. Brian is a Billionaire from Boston and the couple relocated to Wendover so Rebecca can raise her children around horses. She is grasping for a sense of home and place, and may tear her family apart with her emotional decision making.
Hildy takes Rebecca under her wing as a sort of adopted daughter, at a time where her own daughter is distancing Hildy from her grandchild due to erratic drunk behaviour, such as drink-driving. Hildy, like Rebecca has taken on pets, in her case dogs, as replacement children. She is a lonely person because she pushes people away to hide her secret drinking.
Ann Leary is a reformed alcoholic herself and understands the stigma and shame particular to female alcoholism. Her lived experience makes the story of Hildy very real. The story of Hildy is told in a human way, showing how addiction causes isolation in people who are still very high-functioning and have a lot of love to give. Having Hildy as the narrator is a masterstroke for a small-town mystery, because she knows all the gossip, but she sees everything through her own lense.
Ann Leary is celebrity-adjacent, being the wife of comedian and actor Denis Leary, to whom the novel is dedicated. Leary writes magazine articles and co-hosts an NPR weekly radio show Hash Hags. Some things mirror her real life: the alcoholism, and the interests in equestrian and property. She has previously written a memoir AN INNOCENT, A BROAD, and a fictionalised memoir OUTTAKES FROM A MARRIAGE, so THE GOOD HOUSE doesn’t always attract the tag of ‘debut’, but this is her first big step away from the framework of tales of a celebrity wife.
THE GOOD HOUSE has a beautiful ending that ever so lightly brings together all of the themes of the novel and offers resolution and closure without being a traditional happy ending. The novel spans a small but transformative slice of Hildy’s life. It teases out the motivations and fates of the townspeople, turning otherwise inconspicuous background actors into complex full colour portraits, right down to the garbage man, showing that it takes a village to form a woman.