Book Review – Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

“A wise and searching novel about the fine line between being useful and being used.”

That’s the quote from Elizabeth Hay displayed on the cover of the copy of Good to a Fault (Freehand Books, 2008) that I got out of the library. It’s a good quote –a succinct and accurate description of the novel. Good to a Fault was a finalist for the Giller Prize, usually a sign that a book is well written and deserves to be read. So I read it. And, yes, it’s well written and it follows a fascinating story.

Clara Purdy is 40-something, divorced after a brief marriage years previous, and drifting in her life after the deaths of her parents. She owns a house, has worked at the same job for twenty years, and goes to church on Sunday. We are introduced to her with the following, precise, paragraph.

“Clara Purdy had been drifting for some time in a state of mild despaire, forty-three and nothing to show for it. Her racing heart woke her from dreams at three each morning to fling the covers away, angry with herself for this sadness, this terror. Six billion people were worse off. She had all the money she needed, no burdens – she was nothing, a comfortable speck in the universe. She felt smothered, or buried alive, or already dead.”

That’s a great description of the depression that can settle on the middle class. “First world problems”, we call it sometimes. It’s an aimlessness, a lack of purpose, and our society can seem full of it. Purpose comes barreling into Clara’s life one day when she makes a left at a traffic light and hits another car. From there her whole life changes when she decides to take in the family that was living and travelling in that car. Three kids, an undependable father, a thieving grandmother, and a mother who’s just been diagnosed with cancer.

You might be able to predict the problems that arise out of this situation. All sorts of question about guilt, fault, and decency are raised. How much should Clara do for this family? What is right? What is expected? Endicott doesn’t cram these moral questions, or their answers, down the reader’s throat but instead artfully raises them, offers some options, and lets us decide. There’s not much I like more than a writer who respects her readers.

Add to that, the book is very readable. Endicott is skilled at creating a sense of urgency out of a seemingly mundane existence. From early on in the novel, questions and secrets are raised, compelling enough to draw the reader in and make you want to keep reading.

My faults with the novel are small but enough for me to be unable to say I fully enjoyed Good to a Fault. While I can see the positives of Endicott’s book, I wasn’t left with that rush and satisfaction a great novel brings. The point of view jumps from character to character, often within a single paragraph. Although the transitions were usually clear I still found it jarring and it frequently took me out of the novel as I paused to trace whose head I was in.

My major fault with the novel though was largely a personal one. The character of the Anglican minister, Paul, who becomes involved with Clara was hugely unrealistic to me. Without giving away too much of the plot, I believe that any minister who engaged in the behaviour that Paul did would also be going through a massive personal crisis. Not doing so tells the reader that Paul doesn’t take his faith seriously and if that’s so, we really have no idea who Paul is. Not to mention that it’s an inaccurate portrayal of a Christian minister – something I don’t take lightly. Clara, on the other hand, is shown questioning her beliefs and this gives her a depth that makes her more sympathetic.

In the end, I would recommend Good to a Fault to any reader interested in emerging Canadian literature, or simply an enjoyable but thought-provoking read. However, if you really want to be challenged in moral thought, there are finer novels available.

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