Good to a Fault the first of this year’s Canada Reads nominations that I actually sat down and read right away, and without having touched the others I already have a strong feeling it’s going to be my pick.
Basically, it’s my kind of story. Quiet, well-written without being show-offy, heavy on character development.
Good to a Fault is the story of Clara, a quiet, middle-aged divorcee who has spent the last few years of her life caring for her dying parents, and now looks around her to wonder what the rest of her life is going to be about. The answer arrives not with a whimper but a bang, when Clara hits a carful of people at an intersection and becomes entangled — and enmeshed — in their lives. Nobody is seriously injured in the accident, but the resulting hospital visit reveals that the mother of the family, Lorraine, has possibly terminal cancer. Feeling both guilty, and overwhelmed by the desire to take a positive action for once in her life, Clara offers to let the whole family — three small children, a cranky shoplifting grandmother, and a deadbeat dad who promptly disappears with Clara’s car — into her home.
The results are poignant and beautifully portrayed. Clara adjusts to life with the children as they adjust to life without their parents, and everything unfolds with the usual burdens of good intentions, misunderstandings, and resentment (on both side) that generally stem from attempts to do good.
One thing I loved about this novel is that faith is a central theme in the novel. This is explored through Clara, a churchgoing but not terribly committed Anglican who, for the first time in her life, feels called by the Holy Spirit to do something particular, and through her priest Paul, whose unhappy wife had just left him and who is attracted to Clara. Apart from the overt musings on religion, faith, and the cost of being and doing good, the author also gives us two other characters who don’t seem to share the very realistic human faults and foibles of the other characters. I found this odd at first, in such a highly realistic novel, but decided by the end that these two characters are present in the book to embody or symbolize grace — they are the Holy Spirit or angels in human form, there to bless the other flawed, well-intentioned, stumbling characters as they move through their lives.
I have no idea what Endicott’s own religious beliefs are, but she has written a beautiful novel about faith (among other things). While it’s not quite on the breathtaking level of Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead and Home, it’s certainly in the same league, and elicits the same comment from me. Why are so many self-labelled “Christian authors” and “Christian publishers” (and yes I’m indicting myself here too) satisfied with mediocre, half-baked commercial fiction, when writers like Robinson and Endicott and others show us that it’s possible to write about faith in beautiful, transcendant literary fiction that is “inspirational” in all the best senses?
There were a few times in Good to a Fault that I felt the novel was almost too quiet and slow, but that was early on — I quickly got engaged with the characters and their dilemmas, and found it more of a page-turner (for me) than any thriller could ever be. If it lacks anything, maybe it’s the sort of “epic sweep” that people often look for in a prizewinning — it is a very private, personal, intimate story, but one that I think deals with huge and universal themes. I recommend it very highly, and I suspect, as I said, that it will turn out to be my favourite of the Canada Reads picks this year.
The book is so good I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about it when it came out, but in fact it was nominated for several major awards, so I guess there’s no excuse for me not knowing about it. Still, one of the great things about Canada Reads is that it does tend to bring books that might otherwise slip out of the public eye, to the forefront. If you’re interested, there’s some good stuff about Good to a Fault and Marina Endicott on the Canada Reads webiste. I’ll be following the debates with interest when they air to see how this novel fares.