Saturday, February 6, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: Good to a Fault

It is almost too easy to take on the significance of Marina Endicott’s title for her second novel, Good to a Fault. It is a question for the ages – what is good? Everyday events and interactions demonstrate answers to this question, as we judge ourselves and others on a basic principle of what is good and just vs. what is bad and unjust. With Good to a Fault, Endicott places the reader into a specific scenario where what is good and just is presumed already in the plot, prior to eliciting the readers full engagement with the characters. The reader is then faced with tracing through the story a singular dominant idea of when does being and doing ‘good’ become ‘too good’, when does it become a fault.

Good to a Fault revolves around Clara Purdy, “single, childless of course, took care with her appearance; fortyish, and not in good spirits for some time since her mother’s death.” When driving across town one day, Clara ends up in a car accident with the Gage family – father, mother, three kids, and grandmother. Not quite devastating enough that the family car (and temporary home) is totaled, the Gage family is delivered a second knockout blow when mother Lorraine is diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer.

Lorraine is immediately admitted to the hospital for treatment, and Clara makes the almost-too-easy decision to house the rest of the Gage family with her during Lorraine’s treatment. Clara soon becomes a pseudo-mom to the kids as their father Clayton takes off and the grandmother, Mom Pell, turns out to require almost as much care and attention as the children.

It is at the early plot juncture, where Clara and the Gage family literally collide, that Clara’s story within the novel’s pages and within the character’s mind begins to figuratively and speedily collide and unfold in degrees with all manner of items. Her existence fractures into various pieces, each becoming attached to another person within the story and each triggering off additional contemplations as to how deep and how far does Clara’s goodness run.

These pieces inform the novel’s movement forward, with various characters rotating into the narrative’s first chair. Besides Lorraine, there is Darlene/Dolly, the tween daughter of Lorraine and Clayton who struggles between cherishing her love for her own mother and giving in to the physical comforts and caring that are provided through Clara’s middle class mobility. There is Mom Pell, a shrewd and distrustful woman who works hardest at sustaining the barest minimum of ties to everyone, if only to ensure an outlet and audience for her demands. There is also Paul Tippett, the local Anglican priest who is bearing his own collision of what is good vs. bad, both of which are embodied within his relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife and in his burgeoning intimacy with Clara.

These rotations, however, are incomplete in formation when compared against the number of characters introduced throughout the story. Little insight is provided in the complexities of Lorraine’s brother Darwin, whose presence is significant for Lorraine, the children, and Clara but remains relatively unexplored. The same holds true of Mrs. Zenko, Clara’s elderly neighbor, who always has a kind word and just the right food for any moment. Then there is Grace, Moreland and Fern, Clara’s own extended blood family, who appear and disappearance without any other purpose than to support the construct that Clara is good.

And to realize that construct, there must be the required contrast of who is ‘not good’. The easy answer to this comes in the form of Clayton, whose abandonment of his family at the most stressful points is expected from the point of his introduction. His is an almost stereotypical literary existence, with little to no elements of dimensionality woven into his fabric for even the briefest of contemplations. This is not to say that he does not hold value – all the characters most certainly do – but rather, that his and the other subsidiary characters value is not as exposed or as hidden to make the excavation and consideration of the story’s central themes and questions all the more invigorating, all the more long-lasting.

Good to a Fault is about prose though, and not plot. Endicott herself has admitted this in interviews. Endicott is quite adept at layering situations and words in order to command focused attention. It is through the layering though that the story does not fully realize it own seductiveness. Is Clara a saint or is she condescending by layering her morality on the children? Is it really Clayton who is selfish, or is it Clara? The answers do not come hard and fast, but with a loping gander that uniquely - and this is a testament to Endicott’s fluid and nuanced writing voice - privileges the good within each reader. There are moments however when a jolt, an unexpected plot spark could have quickened the pace just a bit to give the story additional vivid strokes.

But, somewhere in the office, computer, mind, etc. of Marina Endicott is the rest of Good to a Fault. In a interview, Endicott stated that the novel started out at twice the size of its final 363-page length. This is the version that I would like to get my hands on someday. For all its heft and engaging prose, Good to a Fault feels a bit unfinished. I found myself slipping between the dense lines at times, searching for more and more despite feeling simultaneously weighted down by what was visible on the pages. The fragility, the intangible quality of the answers to the questions raised left this reader slightly unsatisfied. The subtly of the story’s conclusionary moments seemed almost like a brush off more than a heartfelt fade out for the characters. And I suppose from this perspective, Endicott’s lovely novel can be seen as evolving into an emblem of its own musings and considerations – good, to a fault.

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