After a glass of wine

As a recovered alcoholic, Ann Leary has personal experience of dependency and denial.
As a recovered alcoholic, Ann Leary has personal experience of dependency and denial.

Relaxing in bed with a book and a glass of chardonnay - or two - has always felt like a fairly tame indulgence, but reading The Good House by Ann Leary (Corvus) left me feeling less at ease with my little night-time habit.

This is a novel about alcoholism; not a didactic, beat-you-over-the-head-with-its-message kind of story, but one that's as much about the pleasures of drinking as the perils.

Hildy Good has lived in the same small New England town all her life.

She's "on the darker side of middle-age", a divorced realtor who knows everybody's business.

And she has a secret of her own. For although everyone believes she is sober following a family intervention and a stint in rehab, Hildy has a stash of red wine hidden in the boot of an old car in her garage for her private enjoyment.

She doesn't sip it every night; after all, she's not a real alcoholic.

But drinking makes Hildy feel like herself again.

It makes for her happiest moments. And if she wakes with a headache in the morning it's probably the tannins.

The way Hildy talks, she has life under control, but of course that's not the case.

Her little town is changing. Wealthy people are moving in and buying up the properties, pushing the locals out. She's overcommitted financially and her realty business is suffering. And she's lonely.

Although it has its share of drama, this is very much a character-driven novel and Hildy is a corker of a character. She's funny and kind-hearted, a sharp observer, spirited and tart. We can't help but like her, even once we realise she is untrustworthy, deluding herself and us.

Hildy's control starts to slip when she befriends one of her clients, the rich and beautiful newcomer Rebecca McAllister, a woman with a life as complicated as her own, and they become drinking buddies. As wine is boosted by vodka, and then prescription pills, the gap widens between Hildy's intentions and her actions.

She has black-outs, drink drives, struggles to piece together events and seems headed towards disaster despite the best efforts of her onetime beau, local eccentric Frank Getchell.

Author Ann Leary (the wife of US comedian Denis Leary) is herself a recovered alcoholic, which will be why she understands dependency and denial.

Leary has used that part of her experience to make Hildy's voice convincing and create a wise, authentic story that may make many of its readers (me included!) think twice about those few glasses of wine downed at the end of a long day of holding it all together.

Like Hildy herself, The Good House has flaws - some of the horsey bits, for instance, seem like they belong in a whole different book.

But if a sign of a good story is feeling like the characters are friends and the small-town setting is a place you know and that you don't want it to end, then this novel ticks all those boxes.

- Herald on Sunday

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