Jodi Picoult and I do not see eye to eye on books.
I bought this book last weekend because I had read several good reviews here, but didn’t really look at the cover until my boyfriend was parking the car in front of his building. I pulled the book out of the bag, glanced at the back cover, and said, “Uh oh.” Andrew looked at me for a sec and then said, “Oh...is that a cover blurb from Jodi Picoult?”
This is the third – maybe fourth – time that a book featuring a cover blurb from Picoult has let me down.The Good House
is about Hildy, an alcoholic in denial in a small town north of Boston. She’s 60, divorced from a gay husband, and--as she frequently likes to remind us--the most successful real estate agent in town. She survived one stint in rehab a few years earlier after her two adult daughters staged an intervention, but she continues to drink a bottle of wine a night alone in her home, telling herself that it’s not a problem as long as no one knows about it.
There’s a couple of B-stories, too. Hildy befriends Rebecca, a woman who’s new in town. Unhappily married to a billionaire and obsessed with horses, Rebecca has been slow to make friends in the town, but then Hildy discovers that she’s having an affair with the psychiatrist who rents office space above Hildy. Hildy is also trying to sell a house for Claire, a woman whose son has a severe developmental disability and needs to move closer to an appropriate school. Hildy also describes a teenage fling she had with Frank, who grew up to be the town’s fix-it man/garbage collector.
I had several problems with this book, the first of which is how Leary tries to tie these myriad stories together. I don’t know how to explain it without being too spoilery, but the threads don’t seem to connect until the last fifty pages and so I spent the first two hundred pages wondering what the purpose of all this was. Then, all of a sudden, Leary pushes all the stories together and it just didn't feel natural at all. An unspoilery example is that I didn’t understand why Hildy and Rebecca continued to speak to each other after a certain point. Leary was trying to suggest that they befriended each other because they were both a little lonely and needed a friend who couldn’t judge one another’s past indiscretions, but neither one was benefiting from the relationship and Leary wasn’t giving me a reason to believe that one of them wouldn’t just say, “Leave me alone already.”
There are also a lot of attempts at metaphor or symbolism or what could be foreshadowing that Leary tries and fails to inject into her story. For example, Hildy is descended from one of the first women tried for witchcraft in Salem. She’s perfected a party trick in which she pretends to read people’s minds by planting suggestions and reading their reactions and Leary often drops bits of dialogue about Hildy is kind of witchy…but that really goes nowhere and has no pertinence to anything.
Also, in the opening pages of the book Hildy, a real estate agent, talks about how she can often tell you what a family was like based on the condition of their house when they are getting ready to sell it. That makes perfect sense, but then Hildy goes on to give an example of how she once saw Rebecca planting flowers in her night gown at six in the morning and realized she was depressed. That’s all well and good, Hildy, but you assessed that from her irrational behavior, not the state of her house.
The biggest problem, for me, though, is that Hildy is just not a good choice for a narrator. She’s an alcoholic in denial and full of resentment – meaning she’s incredibly unlikable and wants to place irrational blame on everyone but herself – but she also spends a good chunk of the book in various state of drunkenness. On more than one occasion, Leary transitions from drunk Hildy one evening to hung-over Hildy the next morning, only to have another character reveal that Hildy had actually blacked out and didn’t remember her preposterous behavior of the previous night. I get that that’s how it is when you drink uncontrollably, but it makes for awkward book narration. Leary needs to study up on unreliable narrators a bit more before the next book.
She also needs to study up a bit on mental illness, because the way that she depicts it in this book troubled me quite a bit. Rebecca is clearly unstable, but in the kind of over generalized “crazy” way that’s prevalent in pop culture as opposed to a thoughtful representation of a specific disorder or disease.