Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott is the story of a woman who feels stuck in an unfulfilling life after the deaths of her parents. Forty-three years old and alone, Clara yearns to do some good in the world, to help others, but also, more fundamentally, to connect with them. Ironically, it is a car crash that jolts her out of her rut: in an effort to do the right thing (she was technically at fault), she finds herself inviting the family to stay in her home while the mother receives treatment for cancer. This novel examines what it means to be good in today’s world, what we owe each other as human beings and the cost of charity.
I loved the way this book is written, both its language and its structure. Although it is most often told from Clara’s point of view, the novel also shifts to the points of view of several other characters including Darlene, the oldest of the three children; her mother, Lorraine; and Paul, Clara’s priest. Endicott gets into the heads of each of these characters, revealing their thoughts and motivations. Darlene (aka Dolly) was one of my favourite characters—she is first introduced (through Clara’s eyes) with this description: “The little girl sitting on the pavement looked almost happy, as if her pinched face had relaxed now that some dangerous thing had actually happened” (p. 8). Dolly’s life changes dramatically as a result of staying with Clara. For one thing she discovers the power of books and clings to them as a lifeline:
Dolly put her head down and read. She stuck her book inside her language arts book, and she whipped through her math so she could read, the book under the desk and the textbook on top. She read Mistress Masham’s Repose as hard as she could. She did not mind reading about Maria whose mother was dead . . . because it was in a book, and it was away from here. And it was pretend. (p. 201)
In spite of herself, in spite of all this tragedy and waiting, Dolly could not help sopping up knowledge in huge violent spasms of brain-expansion in school; she read all the time, at lunch and at home. Vanity Fair was like everything, like her life only clearer. She loved it from the very first moment when Becky gets a dictionary after all, and then she throws it back. She was as good a liar as Dolly.I also loved the fact that each chapter is almost a story unto itself (and each has a title). Although in one sense not much happens in this book, there is a quiet intensity about it that completely drew me in. When I first got the book and read Elizabeth Hay’s blurb on the cover (“A wise and searching novel about the fine line between being useful and being used”), I was afraid this meant the novel was going to be about a well-meaning but misguided woman who is taken advantage of by a downtrodden and desperate family. In actual fact, this book is a much more generous, complex and surprising story than that.
After Vanity Fair she had more books, like insurance: the whole stack left to go. It was as if all books had suddenly unlocked, and now she understood everything. (p. 225)
Good to a Fault was shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize.
This was one of my favourite books in 2008. Read my thoughts on rereading this book.
To read other reviews of this book, visit these blogs:
Compulsive Overreader • Farm Lane Books Blog • Lori’s news and events • S. Krishna’s Books
or these sites:
Quill & Quire • The Gazette • The Star • Vue Weekly • Women’s Post
Read an interview with the author at The Writer’s Pet.
Thank you to Mini Book Expo and Freehand Books for sending me this book to review.