St. Martin’s Press promotes Ann Leary’s “The Good House” as “funny.” Cover blurbs declare the novel to be “wickedly funny,” and “genuinely funny.” They also make it perfectly clear that the novel is about alcoholism. Readers familiar with the raging disease of alcoholism may ask how can “The Good House” be both? Mostly the humor of alcoholism is like the laughter at horror movies -mirthless, too loud and always fading into an awkward titter.
Hildy Good, the definition of an unreliable narrator, with her blackouts, compulsive lying and incessant covering behavior, is a successful realtor in a fictional historic town on Boston’s North Shore. Wendover is rapidly losing its lobstermen, its generational locals, its family owned businesses and its appropriately priced real estate that locals can still afford.
Hildy is one of the people most involved in bringing in wealthy outsiders who easily shell out millions for old properties that they then renovate beyond recognition. They also buy up prime ocean-side views and build obnoxious McMansions. She needs big commissions to cover being overextended on her own home. Facing surrendering her home is just one secret Hildy is keeping.
After her daughters host an intervention and send her away to treatment, Hildy briefly manages a white-knuckle sobriety before returning to drinking “just wine.” She hides this from her family and friends. She will lose visits with her only grandchild if her daughters realize she is no longer sober. But, no longer able to drink at luncheons and parties or to celebrate new sales with professional peers, she grows too isolated.
First she stores a leftover case of wine in the trunk of an old car in an old garage, limiting herself to walking down alone every evening and finishing only one bottle. She feels like she was born “three drinks short,” and when she drinks she perceives the world as warmer and sweeter and life as more fair and promising. Wrapped in this golden glow, Hildy strips down naked and swims in the tidal river at night. She is oblivious to neighbors fishing in the river observing the 60-something nude bather staggering in and out of the water.
Drinking alone makes her even lonelier. She keeps making rules that convince her she is drinking in moderation. As winter sets in she moves the wine into the filthy earth cellar below her house. One bottle escalates to two, then three. Spiders and mice crawling over her hands and face awaken her from where she spent the night passed out on the dirt floor.
She makes a new friend, Rebecca, a young, very wealthy outsider. Hildy sold an old local property to Rebecca and her husband. Hildy is ecstatic that Rebecca doesn’t know that Hildy is supposed to be in sobriety. The pretty, artistic, quietly smiling Rebecca rapidly insinuates herself into Hildy’s life and encourages excessive drinking, as they cuddle together in front of the fireplace. Naturally, Rebecca turns out to be very unstable and takes advantage of Hildy’s addiction. Rebecca also stalks her psychiatrist, initiates an affair, and drags both him and Hildy through a lethal ordeal.
By this time Hildy’s symptoms have progressed to include sustained hallucinations of entire conversations with people who are not present. She doesn’t recall placing lengthy, rambling, nighttime calls to Rebecca’s house, as Rebecca claims.
Her one true friend, Frank Getchell, local fix-it man, warned Hildy early about Rebecca’s problematic character. Throughout the novel he remains loyal to Hildy, offering genuine support - which she can’t recognize. Hildy verbally abuses Frank when she needs a drink, falls all over him when she’s drunk and hates him in the morning. He also cleans up her messes, including repairing a damaged car she was driving late at night, again too drunk to remember what, or who, she hit; an autistic boy goes missing the night of her wreck. Is anybody laughing yet?
Leary’s painful portrait of alcoholism is accurate and complete. She has also created a rich, realistic New England environment marked by dramatic tensions and authentic characters. Hildy, typical to alcoholics, is very clever about noting other people’s vulnerabilities and presenting them to readers in a sly, witty way. If you can ignore the chaotic resentments and collateral damage in her life, you might find some of Hildy’s inner commentary to be temporarily amusing or entertaining. She can be acerbically funny when revealing what she has always wanted in life; a poignant call for “more!”
I found the end of the novel to ring false. Almost everything comes up unjustifiably clean and happy. Statistics on alcoholism, with or without treatment, negate this kind of ending. If you like your humor brutal and humiliating, you will appreciate “The Good House.” I prefer the more humble humor of shared laughter, rather than that directed at truly cursed Hildy.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.