Flannery O’Connor fans will be drawn to this fictionalized version of her later years as a strong-willed, deeply lonely genius.
In the early 1960s, when wealthy New Yorker Melvin Whiteson moves to Milledgeville to marry his sweetheart Cookie Himmel, Flannery is living with her mother on the family farm, struggling to complete her second novel and suffering increasingly from the lupus that eventually kills her. A lifelong poultry aficionado, Flannery is also raising peacocks. In the novel’s striking first scene, Cookie and Melvin are awakened on the eve of their wedding by the peacocks’ din, a foreshadowing of what’s to happen to the couple. They love each other but do not understand each other. Emotionally fragile Cookie has considered Flannery her nemesis ever since she read Wise Blood and felt exposed in the worst light as the character Sabbath Lily. A cutting remark Flannery made at Cookie’s high-school awards ceremony so humiliated the girl that she left town as soon as she graduated. Sporting her new rich and handsome husband, Cookie has returned desperate to prove to Milledgeville what a glamorous success she has become and throws herself into community activities. Sophisticated but aimless Melvin finds himself at loose ends in the small town. Soon he finds himself drawn to Flannery in a platonic but intense relationship he hides from Cookie. When Cookie has a baby, she and Melvin begin to re-establish their connection, but ultimately Melvin cannot stay away from Flannery. Meanwhile, Cookie has hired the deputy sheriff’s wife Lona Waters, another lonely outsider, to make curtains for their new impressive home. Inevitably these unhappy lives—Lona has begun a dangerous relationship of her own—wind together until violent, senseless deaths occur, propelling characters into dark nights of the soul but also the possibility of Flannery O’Connor–like grace.
The tone and careful use of language certainly recalls O’Connor, but Napolitano (Within Arm’s Reach, 2004) takes too many shortcuts around her plot and characters to bring the novel to life.