The Novelist Ann Leary Writes About Secrets

February 2nd, 2013

Andrea Wise for The New York Times

The novelist Ann Leary at work as her dog Holly keeps an eye on the surroundings.

I am covered in dog. Four, to be precise: little, big, bigger, mutant (Gomer, a 125-pound Leonberger). “Daphne is a little needy,” the novelist Ann Leary says as the Labradoodle wedges her head between my knees and refuses to budge. “We don’t get too many visitors out here.”

Ms. Leary and I are sitting in the kitchen of the 1850s Litchfield County farmhouse she shares with her husband, the comedian and actor Denis Leary. She is wearing an oversize gray cashmere sweater and jeans, and she worries that she should have gotten dressed up. (“Maybe a caftan, like Suzanne Pleshette in ‘The Bob Newhart Show’?”) With a whisper of snow and gathering wind outside, the home — wood beam ceilings, oversized sofas, a fire cracking in the kitchen hearth — is every city dweller’s fantasy of the country. Yet I can’t help noticing that for a place with four dogs, horses and Denis Leary, it’s suspiciously neat.

“Oh God, I know,” Ms. Leary says as she darts down the hall. “I had it cleaned for you this morning.” She then throws open a door that reveals a room piled high with the detritus of real life: papers, electronics, unfinished craft projects, dog toys. “Welcome to my room of shame,” she said.

Ms. Leary cracks me up with her incessant apologies. (Her friend, the writer Julie Klam, calls her “pathologically modest”). But the room of shame is no small thing to her; it’s a concept at the center of her new book, “The Good House.” The novel tells the story of Hildy Good, a flinty 60-ish real estate agent in a gentrifying New England coastal town where she has lived forever. Hildy believes she can tell as much about a person from one walk through their home as a therapist can from traipsing through their mind. “That’s why we all clean up before visitors come,” Ms. Leary says “We don’t want strangers to know too much about us.”

Yet many of us can’t help revealing what’s in our secret rooms. And so it is with Hildy, collector of the town’s secrets, whose denial of her own secret sets off a series of events that shakes up the New England tranquillity.

The novel is so cinematic it’s inevitable one starts casting it. “Oh Meryl should be Hildy, of course,” says the producer Jane Rosenthal, who just optioned the book. Several days earlier, Ms. Rosenthal and I are shouting at each other over the din of Ms. Leary’s book party at the Ditch Plains restaurant on the Upper West Side, where the admirers and friends include Katie Holmes, Michael J. Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan. “There simply aren’t that many novels today with such a powerful woman character, someone we can all relate to as wives, mothers, working women, grandmothers,” Ms Rosenthal said. “Ann just has an amazing voice.”

Reviews for “The Good House” have been strong, and it landed on the New York Times best-seller list last week. After a memoir and one previous novel, Ms. Leary is on the brink of becoming known for more than being Denis Leary’s wife. “I know some people wouldn’t take this novel seriously — I’m a celebrity wife, for God’s sake,” Ms. Leary says. “I wouldn’t want to read the novel of a celebrity wife.”

But Ms. Leary has a subject that hits home all too hard for many women. Hildy drinks, and drinks alone. She thinks she doesn’t have a problem; it’s everyone else that’s the problem. But while it is a cautionary tale, it is not finger-waggy. It also acknowledges and celebrates the beauty of drinking.

“Maybe I write well about drinking because I love to drink,” Ms. Leary says. “I’m definitely an alcoholic.” Over the years she would have periods of trying to drink socially. Then, when that ended in one disaster or the other, she would have periods of drinking at home alone, when her children were out and Mr. Leary was on the road. “I’d come up and polish my saddle and put on a movie and have a bottle, bottle and half of wine, sometimes more,” she says. “It was heaven.” But things would happen, bad things, and like Hildy, Ms. Leary wouldn’t remember what she’d done or said. “I was always a mess,” she says. “I was the kind of drinker who everyone would be mad at the next day. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. So when I decided to quit, it wasn’t like people said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t need to do that.’ Everyone was like, good idea.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 1, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the institution where the Learys met. They met at Emerson College, not Emory University.

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