GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 14, 2013

A townie at heart Ann Leary writes 'The Good House,' set partly in Essex

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — A lot of people think they see themselves, or someone they know, in Ann Leary’s new novel “The Good House.”

The main character, Hildy Good, is a real estate agent on the North Shore, and Leary has received a number of emails from readers claiming to know who Hildy is in real life. “They all think it’s them,” Leary said.

There’s only one problem with these theories.

“I don’t know any real estate brokers on the North Shore,” said Leary.

But readers will not be mistaken if they see sights and places from Essex County on every page of the novel, which is Leary’s second and follows a memoir that she published in 2004.

“It’s wonderful because I’ve received so many nice emails, saying it’s fun to recognize landmarks I didn’t name,” said Leary, 50, who lives in Connecticut now with her husband, comedian Denis Leary.

She knows the North Shore because her family moved to Marblehead from Wisconsin when Leary was 14, after her father transferred to a job at Gillette in Boston. She attended public schools in Marblehead for two years before enrolling at Dana Hall, a private school in Wellesley.

She met Denis Leary in a comedy-writing class he was teaching at Emerson College before his career took off, leading to starring roles in movies and television.

Leary’s mother, Judith Howe, and sister, Meg Seminara, still live in Marblehead, but that isn’t the setting of “The Good House.”

The town where Hildy sells real estate, Wendover, sounds like Andover but looks a lot like Ipswich.

“I took riding lessons up in Ipswich,” Leary said. “When we would go up there, I loved it there. That’s what I drew on, memories of that.”

Leary even included “a fake Crane’s Beach” in the novel, but said she also used aspects of Essex in creating Wendover, along with elements of her town in Connecticut.

One part of “The Good House” that really rings true lies in Hildy’s dealings with economic realities and the way they shape people’s roles in the town.

“I’m the top real-estate agent in a town whose main industries are antiques and real estate,” Hildy says in the first chapter. “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.”

Hildy’s job requires that she mediate between these groups, the locals and new arrivals, the people trying to buy or sell a house and those who paint and repair them.

She describes herself as “an old townie” — one who happens to be descended from a victim of the Salem witch trials — and that trait makes her experience different from Leary’s. As someone whose family moved around, Leary never felt settled where she lived, and so was curious about people who had roots in the community.

“The whole townie thing fascinated me,” Leary said. “I always wanted to be one.”

One trait that Hildy does share with her creator is a taste for alcohol. Leary first sought help for her drinking when she was 24.

“I did seek treatment in Boston on an outpatient basis, and didn’t drink for 14 years,” she said.

There was a period of relapse in which Leary “did try to drink in a controlled way for four or five years. I would have a glass of wine or two with friends,” but that didn’t last.

“I had blackouts and wouldn’t remember, and had to stop again,” she said. “I stopped again six years ago. Most of my adult life I have not been a drinker at all.”

Leary’s understanding of the alcoholic mind works to powerful effect in the book, where the reader gradually becomes aware of subtle gaps in Hildy’s accounts of things, pointing to a not-so-subtle problem.

“Alcoholics are often reliable, except when it comes to themselves,” Leary said. “They often aren’t telling the truth. She’s refusing to look at herself truthfully.”

As with readers who recognize the setting of her book, or think they know the real identities of her characters, Leary also hears from people who feel self-conscious about their drinking after reading “The Good House.”

“I’m not Dr. Drew,” she said. “I wouldn’t dream of giving advice.”

But she is sure that Hildy, whom she describes as an intuitive character with great sympathy for other people, isn’t defined solely by her alcoholism.

“I really like Hildy,” Leary said. “There’s so much to like.”