Hildy Good has lived in the small historic Massachusetts town of Wendover all her life. She can trace her ancestors back to her eighth-great-grandmother Sarah, one of the witches tried and hanged in Salem. She’s divorced, on the upper side of middle-aged and runs a well-established real estate business. She enjoys a glass of wine. Or two. She likes the taste. She likes the whole social world that generally accompanies going out for a drink. And she loves the way she feels when she’s had a glass. Or bottle.
Her daughters see it differently: to them she has become an alcoholic and they arrange an intervention that ends with Hildy semi-voluntarily entering rehab. When she emerges she’s accepted back into the small-town social whirl without a hiccup except that her glass is automatically filled with water or a soft drink where previously it would have been a Burgundy. Problem solved. And she can still enjoy a glass or two in the sanctuary of her own home: “It’s better this way. No more worrying that the hosts will stop serving drinks before I’ve had enough. No more regrets the next day. Now I stay home in the evenings and slip serenely into myself. They’d think it was sad, my daughters, but those are some of the happiest moments in my life, when I can change comfortably back into myself. No every night any more. Not every night. No.”
Being the main real-estate agent in town for decades gives Hildy special understanding of its inner workings, the “psychology”, of the community. But when the public spotlight is turned on her fall from grace she resents the attention and is delighted when she meets rich newcomer Rebecca who is accepting of her flexible approach to sobriety. They quickly become pals, particularly drinking pals. Depressed and insecure Rebecca is in need of a little intervention herself and signs up with the local shrink first as patient then lover. And as Hildy slowly realises, Rebecca isn’t quite as vulnerable and benign as she seems.
The quirky relationship between Hildy and her old childhood friend Frank Getchell lies at the heart of The Good House (in the upcoming film the characters are to be played by Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro). He is descended from the oldest family in town but looks and lives like an itinerant. His home is ramshackle and filled with junk which might one day be useful. He’s disheveled and often smelly, but also wise and loyal. Despite their differences, their shared past is the foundation for a deep-rooted and forgiving friendship.
Leary has a sharp eye for the complexities and intrigues of life in a small community; the secrets that are hidden behind the façade of moneyed respectability and the lengths people are prepared to go to protect those they love and the life they have crafted for themselves. She weaves together the strands of the multi-layered plot so well you find yourself racing through the pages to find out what is going to happen next.
The Good House is a great read, both funny and poignant. Leary writes in intimate detail about the veneer of normalcy that Hildy has applied over the lies and subterfuge that have come to be her life. It is an acutely painful portrait of the impact of addiction and what happens when alcohol outranks the concern of those closest.
The Good House is published in Australia this week by Allen & Unwin. Leary is author of two previous books, the memoir An Innocent, A Broad and the novel Outakes From A Marriage. She is co-host of a weekly radio show in America.