Author Ann Leary isn’t shy about mining her life for her writing.
In a New York Times column, she wrote about how her marriage to actor Denis Leary came to the brink of divorce, but that admitting their need to separate actually kept them together.
Her latest novel “The Good House” centers around Hildy Good, a 60-year-old real estate agent who refuses to admit that she has a drinking problem.
As Ann Leary tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, she herself is an alcoholic, though she no longer drinks.
“The challenge for me as the writer was to write a book, in the first person, from the point of view of an alcoholic in complete denial,” says Leary.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Good House’
By Ann Leary
I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. I remember joking about this one evening with Peter Newbold, the shrink who rents the office upstairs from mine.
“The next time you get a new patient,” I offered, “I’ll sneak to their house for a walk-through. While you jot down notes about their history, dreams, whatever, I’ll shine a flashlight into the attic, open a few cupboards, and have a peek at the bedrooms. Later, when we compare notes, I’ll have the clearer picture of the person’s mental health, guaranteed.” I was teasing the doctor, of course, but I’ve been selling houses since he was in primary school, and I stand by my theory.
I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives— you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench oozes up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before. The marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s now clearly hers— well, you get the idea.
I don’t have to go inside the house to make a diagnosis; the curbside analysis is usually enough. The McAllister house is a perfect example. In fact, I’d love to compare my original observations regarding Rebecca McAllister with Peter. She was depressed, for one. I drove past the McAllisters’ one morning in late May, not long after they’d moved in, and there she was, out in the early-morning haze, planting annuals all along the garden path. It wasn’t even seven a.m., but it was clear that she had been at it for hours. She was in a rather sheer white nightshirt, which was damp with sweat and covered with soil. People were starting to drive by, but Rebecca had become so absorbed in her gardening that it apparently hadn’t occurred to her to put on some proper clothes.
I stopped and said hello from my car window. We chatted for a few minutes about the weather, about how the kids were adjusting to their new school, but as we talked, I sensed a sadness in the way Rebecca planted—a mournfulness, as if she were placing each seedling in a tiny plot, a tiny little grave. And they were bright red impatiens that she was planting. There’s always something frantic about that kind of bold color choice for the front of a house. I said good-bye, and when I glanced back at Rebecca through my rear-view mirror, it looked, from that distance, like there was a thin trail of blood leading all the way from the house to the spot where she knelt.
“I told her I would do the planting, but she likes to do it herself,” Linda Barlow, the McAllisters’ landscaper, told me later that day at the post office. “I think she’s lonely up there. I almost never see the husband.”
Linda knew I had sold them the house, and she seemed to imply that I had been derelict, somehow, in assuring the healthy acclimation of one of Wendover’s newest treasures—the McAllisters. The “wonderful McAllisters,” as Wendy Heatherton liked to call them. Wendy Heatherton and I had actually cobrokered the sale. I had the listing; Wendy, from Sotheby’s, had the wonderful McAllisters.
“It takes time,” I said to Linda. “I guess,” she replied.
“Wendy Heatherton’s having a party for them next weekend. They’ll meet some nice people there.”
“Oh yeah, all the nice, fancy people.” Linda laughed. “You going?”
“I have to,” I said. I was flipping through my mail. It was mostly bills. Bills and junk.
“Is it hard going to parties for you? I mean . . . now?” Linda touched my wrist gently and softened her voice when she said this.
“What do you mean, ‘now’?” I shot back. “Oh, nothing . . . Hildy,” she stammered.
“Well, good night, Linda,” I said, and turned so that she wouldn’t see how red my face had become. Imagine Linda Barlow worrying about whether it’s hard for me to go to parties. I hadn’t seen poor Linda at a party since we were in high school.
And the way she pitied Rebecca McAllister. Rebecca was married to one of the wealthiest men in New England, had two lovely children, and lived on an estate that had once belonged to Judge Raymond Barlow—Linda’s own grandfather. Linda had grown up playing at that big old house, with those gorgeous views of the harbor and the islands, but, you know, the family money had run out, the property had exchanged hands a few times, and now Linda lived in an apartment above the pharmacy in Wendover Crossing. Rebecca paid Linda to tend to some of the very same heirloom perennials—the luscious peonies, the fragrant tea rose, lilac, and honeysuckle bushes, and all the bright beds of lilies, daffodils, and irises—that her own grandmother had planted there over half a century ago.
So while it was laughable, really, that she might worry about me, it was positively absurd that she pitied Rebecca. I show homes to a lot of important people—politicians, doctors, lawyers, even the occasional celebrity—but the first time I saw Rebecca, the day I showed her the Barlow place, I have to admit, I was a little at a loss for words. A line from a poem that I had helped one of my daughters memorize for school, many years before, came to mind.
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.
Rebecca was probably thirty or thirty-one at the time. I had Googled Brian McAllister before the showing and had expected to meet an older woman. People must think he’s her father is what I thought then, except for the fact that there was something very wise and understanding about her face, a sort of serenity in her expression that women don’t usually acquire until their kids are grown. Rebecca’s hair is dark, almost black, and that morning it had been pulled up into a messy ponytail with a colorful little scarf around it, but it was easy to see that when she let it down, it was quite long and wavy. She shook my hand and smiled at me. She’s one of those women who smiles mostly with her eyes, and her eyes appeared to be gray one minute, green the next. I guess it had to do with the light.
She was a little thin then, but her whole frame is tiny, and she wasn’t as gaunt as she later seemed. She was petite. She was beautiful. She moved in circles, and those circles moved, same poem, although I still don’t recall the name of the poet, but she was one of those effortlessly graceful women who make you feel like an ogress if you stand too close. I’m not fat, but I could lose a few. Wendy Heatherton is slim, but she’s had all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking. I don’t know who the hell she thought she was kidding when she was carrying on about that gallbladder operation a few years back.
It’s a well-known fact that the McAllisters had sunk a fortune into the yearlong renovation of the old Barlow place. Brian McAllister, for those who don’t know, is one of the founders of R. E. Kerwin, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. He grew up in the bottom of a three-decker in South Boston, with four brothers and a sister, and had become a billionaire before he turned fifty. Had he married somebody else, he probably would have been living in a mansion in Wellesley or Weston with a full staff, but he had married Rebecca, who, having grown up with a staff, and distant parents, liked to do things herself.
How do I know so much about the McAllisters? It’s not just from their house. I know pretty much everything that happens in this town. One way or another, it gets back to me. I’m an old townie; the eighth-great-granddaughter of Sarah Good, one of the accused witches tried and hanged in Salem. My clients love it when I drop that into a conversation. That I descend from the witch called, so delightfully and ironically, Goodwife Good. (Yes, I always laugh with them, as if it had never occurred to me until they said it, Good ol’ Goody Good, ha-ha.) That and the fact that my family has been in Salem and here in nearby Wendover, Massachusetts, since the 1600s.
My husband, Scott, used to tell me that I’d have been hanged as a witch myself had I lived in another time. He meant it as a sort of compliment, believe it or not, and it’s true, I do rather fit the profile, especially now that I’m on the darker side of middle age. My first name is Hilda, which my children have always told me sounds like a witch’s name, but I’m called Hildy. I live alone; my daughters are grown and my husband is no longer my husband. I talk to animals. I guess that would have been a red flag. And some people think I have powers of intuition, psychic powers, which I don’t. I just know a few tricks. I have a certain type of knowledge when it comes to people and, like I said, I tend to know everybody’s business.
Well, I make it my business to know everybody’s business. I’m the top real-estate agent in a town whose main industries are antiques and real estate. It used to be shipbuilding and clams, but the last boatyard in Wendover closed down more than thirty years ago. Now, those of us who aren’t living off brand-new hedge-fund money are selling inflated waterfront properties to those who are.
You can still clam here—the tidal marsh down by Getchell’s Cove is a good spot—but you can’t make your living off clams anymore. Even the clams at Clem’s Famous Fried Clams are poured into those dark vats of grease from freezer bags shipped down from Nova Scotia. No, the best way to make money up here now is through real estate: the selling, managing, improving, and maintaining of these priceless waterfront acres that used to be marshland and farms but that were recently described in Boston magazine as “the North Shore’s New Gold Coast.”
Brian McAllister happens to own Boston magazine. The day we met, after I showed him his future house, he pointed to a copy of it folded up on the seat next to me in the car and said, “Hey, that’s my magazine you got there, Hildy.”
“Really? Oh well, take it. My copy must be around here someplace.”
“No.” Brian laughed. “I own it. Boston mag. I’m the publisher. Bought it last year with a friend.”
You’re a wicked big deal, a real hotshot is what I thought. I hate rich people. Well, I’m doing all right myself these days, but I hate all the other rich people.
“It’s one of my favorite magazines,” I said.
I was showing him a two-million-dollar house, after all, a house that I knew his wife had already gutted and restored in her mind; had mentally painted and furnished and plumbed and wired and dramatically lit during the few short days since I had shown it to her.
“I bet we can give you a special advertising rate in the real-estate section, if you want,” Brian said.
“That would be great, Brian, thanks,” I said.
And I hated him a little bit less.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Ann Leary is a writer, and she follows one of the golden rules: Write what you know. Her memoir, "An Innocent, a Broad," was about the birth of her son prematurely while she was in London. The child is the innocent, she is the broad. Her marriage to Denis Leary, star of the TV show "Rescue Me," probably informed just a little of her novel "Outtakes from a Marriage," which is the story of a woman married to the star of a TV show.
Ann Leary also wrote a recent "Modern Love" column in The New York Times about how playing tennis and watching the movie "March of the Penguins" might have saved her real-life marriage to Denis. And now, there's Ann Leary's latest book, "The Good House," in which she writes with firsthand knowledge about drinking.
It's the story of 60-year-old Hildy Good, who is rebuilding her real estate business in a small coastal town after coming out of rehab where she'd been exiled by her grown daughters. Hildy, the narrator, is more than happy to direct us to other storylines in town. Look over there at that affair or a castle being built. But we slowly realize this is a story about her and how she's gone back to drinking, just wine, just at night, just by herself.
ANN LEARY: (Reading) Most nights, I just have a few glasses. I've come to love my nightly party of one. I've no need to go out with others, all the bothersome others with their judgments and their quick looks between them. Stolen pleasures are always more thrilling than those come by honestly. It's what I imagine makes adulterous love affairs so exciting, having a wickedness concealed beneath one's everyday mantle of goodness.
YOUNG: Well, you know, that isn't going to end well. Ann Leary's "The Good House" came out in paperback this month. It's being made into a film, starring Meryl Streep as Hildy, Robert De Niro as the town handyman. And Ann Leary joins us in the studio with more. Welcome.
LEARY: Thank you, Robin. Thanks for having me on.
YOUNG: Well, it's a great read. And let's just talk about how your own experience might have infused this, because you're not shy about talking about your own drinking or the fact that you don't anymore.
LEARY: Yeah. I do have a history of alcoholism, and I am in recovery, and I have a - it was in the past year as the publication of this book was approaching that I first came out about my alcoholism, although most of my friends have always known that I don't drink. Actually, some very good friends of mine never really knew why. And now, everybody knows.
YOUNG: Well, and - but they couldn't help but know. I would imagine if people said to you, how do you know this voice so well? How do you know this voice of this person who tries so hard to convince herself that what she's doing is OK?
LEARY: Right. Yeah. So that's what I really love about writing this book. And it was really the challenge for me as the writer was to write a book in the first person from the point of view of an alcoholic in complete denial. So Hildy is telling the reader one thing and then have the reader start to wonder if she's actually telling the truth about her drinking.
YOUNG: At first, you think, well, yeah, gosh, leave this woman alone. She did rehab. But then you do start to wonder, because we are in her head, you start to - it's dizzying because you start to wonder, wait a minute, did she really do what she said last night, or is this person telling her that, no, you're actually in your car driving last night. Are they right?
LEARY: Right. I wanted to get across to the reader the very real confusion and fear that accompanies blackout drinking.
YOUNG: Even before the blackouts, there's just a fussiness that makes her see things differently, and so you as the reader do too.
LEARY: Right. I think what people who aren't alcoholics don't understand is that denial isn't a refusal to believe the truth on the part of the alcoholic. They actually believe their truth. You know, it's not that they're turning, you know, a blind eye. They actually are in a different reality than their family members.
YOUNG: Even when there seems to be some awareness so that she will not drink, let's say, at a social gathering but then get home and throw her keys up on the roof so that she can drink quietly alone at home, there's an awareness there. You must know that there's something wrong.
YOUNG: How much of this talking to other women about what's being recognized as a problem equal to the problem of the, you know, the men who would fall off barstools, you know, these women and quiet drinking?
LEARY: There's a little bit more shame, I think, for the female alcoholic, the high-functioning female alcoholic, which is many alcoholics. They take good care of their kids. They may work. And then after the kids go to bed, they might drink a few glasses of wine, and then that turns into a few more and a few more the next day. They don't really remember going to bed. And it's been interesting. I've received so many emails from people who said they really related to this and to the kind of enjoyment that comes from drinking alone.
And Hildy really does - she loves her party of one. She actually feels more herself when she's drinking. She is not the most, you know, she's a real New Englander. She's flinty and a little bit strident. And she's not able to really show love and show kind of vulnerable feelings unless she's drinking. When she's drinking, it's the only time she's able to kind of soften and feel and allow herself to experience her softer feelings without being afraid of being vulnerable.
YOUNG: Yeah. I'm wondering how much your drinking and your stopping drinking intersected with a terrific column that you wrote in the "Modern Love" column in The New York Times, about you and your husband, Denis Leary - of course, the actor - and how - you had, you know, a rough patch that seemed to extend for quite a while. But somehow, through playing tennis and learning how to play tennis well together with respect for each other and the rules, and seeing the film "March of the Penguins" about the heartbreaking story of the penguins trying to guide the eggs holding their offspring and, you know, not letting the egg break, how those two things somehow kept you guys together.
LEARY: I think the thing was if you've seen the movie "March of the Penguins," there was a time in our marriage where we came to find ourselves in sort of a penguin marriage. And in that movie, the penguins mate for just the period that that egg is being incubated. And once it hatches and is able to be on its own, the penguins part forever.
That struck us both because we saw the movie when we were going through this part of our marriage where we realized, you know, we're kind of in a penguin marriage. It seems to be that we're - it's all about just raising these kids, and we almost didn't feel like it would last once the kids grew up. You know, they've been out of the house for years, and our marriage is great. But we didn't - there was a time we didn't think that would happen.
YOUNG: Well, and part of keeping it together was, you know, the hard work of one foot in front of another, going to counseling, having date nights, playing better together, playing more civilly.
LEARY: Yeah, by the rules is what it came down to.
YOUNG: Playing by the rules.
LEARY: You know, playing by the rules and fairly and not feeling competitive, but we started becoming proud. We both took up tennis late in life. You know, we didn't play it growing up. And so we started, instead of being mad at the other when the other won, we started - as our marriage got better, we started being really proud of the other, and we both got better. And then, you know, we wanted to instead of just slam a ball in and kill, we wanted to keep the ball going and have long rallies.
YOUNG: Yeah. You were in a long rally.
YOUNG: Well, but there was a moment in the story where you both had agreed to divorce, and that's when you started getting actually closer. And you were offering up your...
LEARY: My grievances. Yeah, I was kind of doing this - putting on his side of the court. You know, this is why the marriage failing is your fault. Instead of rising to the fight, he just said I'm sorry. And it was that - it was kind of this thing happened, you know - this often happens in counseling - where something happened with the realization that it is possible that we could split up that made us realized we don't necessarily have to. And it sounds very simplistic.
YOUNG: Well, it also gave you room to apologize. And you were listing some of the things that you were sorry you've done. I'd bring you back to Hildy Good. Was drinking a part of that or...
LEARY: Everyone has their little things that they have to overcome. So - but, yes, certainly that was it. And in "The Good House," Hildy's relationship with alcohol certainly affects her relationships with everybody. But mostly, it's her relationship with the truth, which is something that is the hardest thing for her to come to terms with, which is the - kind of the struggle of most alcoholics who...
YOUNG: And most marriages.
LEARY: And most marriages. That's right.
YOUNG: That's Ann Leary. Her book, "The Good House," just out in paperback this month, a terrific read. Ann, thanks so much for talking with us about it.
LEARY: Thank you so much for having me.
YOUNG: So, Meghna, who knew "March of the Penguins" is about marriage counseling or something?
YOUNG: Or don't drop your penguin egg. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.