At some time in our lives, we’ve all wondered: What is the right thing to do? Usually, it’s just in small ways. Should I let my 2-year-old have a cookie before supper? Should I tell my sister she has mustard on her chin? But, what about something big, something life-changing?
Clara Purdy was doing some soul-searching as she drove to the bank one day. Since her mother’s death, she has been feeling as though she has no purpose. So much of her time had been spent taking care of her mother during her long illness, and before that her father. And, many years ago, her short marriage. Now, at 43, it was just her, her house, and her job of over 20 years. She tries to keep up going to church like she always did with her mother, but she doesn’t know what to think about that anymore, either.
Clara Purdy had been drifting for some time in a state of mild despair, 43 and nothing to show for it. Her racing heart woke her from dreams 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.
Then, the car crash, and her life is changed forever. The family in the other car are all okay, but the mother is admitted to the hospital with Lymphoma that was not discovered until she was checked by a doctor after the crash.
Clara feels responsible, so she starts by visiting them at the hospital, bringing them comfort items and buying them food at the cafeteria. Because the family was living out of their car at the time, they have no place to stay, so, for the sake of the children, she offers her house as a place for them to stay.
Her life is no longer orderly and predictable. She no longer has peace and quiet. On the other hand, she is no longer lonely, and she has taken some time off work to spend at home taking care of the children. She quickly forms tight bonds with the children, all the while praying that their mother will recover.
For a bitter moment she hated her own health and luck, and everything else that made her different from Lorraine.
Adding complexity to the story is a small cast of characters. The children’s father, Clayton, is a surly character who disappears with Clara’s car after the first night at her house. Clayton’s mother, Gran, is even less friendly than her son. The children’s Uncle Darwin comes to spend time with his sister in the hospital, as well as the children at the house. Clara’s neighbour is a kind woman who helps with the children as much as she can. Clara visits the mother, Lorraine, in hospital as much as she can as she goes through months of cancer treatment. Paul, the pastor at Clara’s church, starts to take a special interest in Clara and her new “family”, especially after his wife leaves him.
Then there are the children; Dolly, 9; Trevor, 5; Pearce, 1. They each have their own stories as they learn to adapt to their new circumstances. Their lives were not stable before the crash, but now they have to reconcile with the fact that their mother is in hospital, their father is missing, they have a new place to live which they like very much but how long will it last? What happens when their mother is well again? What happens if she doesn’t ever get well?
They always had to be careful about Clary, to keep the balance between them and someone who was not their mother, who they couldn’t be too nice to; but they couldn’t make her mad either, or be mean to her, because she might give up on them, or because it wouldn’t be fair. They had to be good, and then they got to expect things from her, but there was a set of invisible rules about how much they could be hers.
The narrative slips smoothly between many of the characters, so we get a sense of what everyone is thinking and feeling as the story unfolds. Through the months that follow, Clara wonders if she is really doing the right thing, or if she is only doing it for herself. She can no longer imagine her life without the children.
This book was a refreshing change for me after reading two war novels. It has a contemporary, compelling premise that raises some interesting questions about intentions and doing the ‘right thing’. After having read the book, and thought about it, I still don’t think there is a clear answer, a right or wrong. For Clara, it was just one decision leading to the next until there was no going back. Is it possible to go too far with our good intentions? This book is worth reading!
Good to a Fault won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean region. It was short-listed for the 2008 Giller Prize, longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and was featured on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads in 2010.
Marina Endicott’s first book, Open Arms, was a finalist for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her most recent book, The Little Shadows, was short-listed for 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, and long-listed for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I have this one on my shelf and look forward to reading it!
This review from the New York Times (2010) gives a good sense of the tone and themes of the novel.