Good to a Fault is the ANZ LitLovers reading group choice for August, and it’s a wonderful book for discussion. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize in Canada, and won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean.
Once, exasperated by a rather dreary visit to some nice friends of my mother’s, my father (sotto voce) said that very good people were usually boring. My father himself is a very good man so I was a bit shocked, but have since then sometimes thought that he might have been right. After all, there’s a whole media industry devoted to gossip: the cult of celebrity proves that most people would rather read about bad behaviour and scandal; it’s not easy to make the everyday niceness of people interesting reading.
Even harder is to make exceptional goodness interesting reading, but Endicott has achieved it. Her heroine, Clara Purdy, is a very good person. When she has a car accident with an itinerant family in crisis, she takes them into her home because the mother is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Three children (one of them a baby); a light-fingered husband who had abused her after the accident; a poisonous old mother-in-law; and eventually also the children’s uncle. From a quiet and prudent life lived alone after the harrowing deaths of her parents. Clara suddenly finds herself with a full house, responsibility for the children, constant demands on her purse, and an obligation to visit the mother in hospital.
And she copes with all this with remarkable grace. It’s a convincing portrait, because the reader is privy to her moments of exasperation, doubt, anxiety about money and extreme tiredness, but her journey of self-discovery is notable for the way she so rarely shows her inner thoughts to anyone. She responds philosophically to remarkable provocation from the husband Clayton and Mrs Purdy the mother-in-law; she puts up with the chaos that children bring with amazing patience. She looks like a saint, but she cops criticism from the church ladies because they suspect her motives, and she has to act covertly because of the risk that social services will intervene. It’s a surprisingly diverting plot – and it raises such interesting questions…
The experience of having a de facto family makes Clara question her whole life as a single woman who has a job rather than a satisfying career. I’m not going to give away any spoilers for this book, except to say that as events turn out Clara has to confront the purpose of life in ways that question the value of family, religion, work and friendship.
Characterisation is superb, especially the children. Fierce, independent-minded Dolly; brave, uncertain Trevor, and Pearce the adorable little baby are the heart and soul of this story, always centre stage, always there needing to be cared for, not able to be forgotten about. Mrs Zenko next door with her soups and scones is a treasure – but not a stereotype to be used to conveniently babysit when the plot needs it, and her niceness is balanced by barmy Mr Bunt who is guardian of what’s proper in the street. Paul, the married priest with issues of his own and a distaste for visiting the sick quotes a bit too much poetry for my taste – and I imagine that his congregation found his sermons unintelligible – but he’s utterly convincing. Even the nurses in the hospital are rendered as individuals even though they are very minor characters.
Author: Marina Endicott
Title: Good to a Fault
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2009
Source: Personal library