Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
If a critic of an author's first book uses both the phrases "funny, wry and original" and "subtle, mature and highly original" all in one review, do we blame this redundancy on a reviewer with a poor vocabulary, or a novel that inspires vaguely positive reactions, but no colorful adjectives? I would like to blame the reviewer, but I sympathize with his or her plight; Endicott's second novel presents just such a predicament.
Marina Endicott's Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-winning second novel, Good to a Fault, is perhaps just that -- a little too "good" for its own good. Pardon my own redundancy, but the novel's plot really is original; it’s a fresh take on a topic bordering on overdone. Clara Purdy is a woman on the verge of spinsterhood, coping with her mother's recent death. Alone in the world, trapped in a mundane job that she doesn't feel passionate about, with nothing to interrupt the monotony of her days... it's a familiar scenario of suburban ennui, until a car accident unwittingly lands her in a new life. The car crash affects the family inside the other car more deeply than Clara; while she suffers a few cuts and bruises, the resulting trip to the hospital reveals that Lorraine, the mother of three and wife of unemployed, undependable Clayton, has cancer. In addition, while her car is a bit dented, the family's car, which happens to be their current home, is totaled. Lorraine is immediately admitted to the hospital for treatment, while Clara, thinking she's doing the right thing, takes the rest of the family into her home. As Lorraine's health worsens and Clayton disappears, Clara begins to adjust to her new status as a pseudo-mother, finding a sense of purpose she's never felt before.
Endicott tells the story through rotating perspectives, among them Clara, of course, but also Darlene, Lorraine's nearly adolescent daughter; Paul, the local clergyman that becomes intimately involved with Clara and her adopted family; and Mrs. Pell, Lorraine's selfish shrew of a mother-in-law, most notable for her tendency to use Benadryl as a "special soother" for Pearce, the baby. While these varying perspectives could shed insight into Clara's motivation for taking on such a difficult case (is she some sort of saint? a woman indulging her repressed maternal urges? a condescending do-gooder looking for validation?), these forays into other voices are more distracting than artistically fragmented. Darlene's struggle between her love for her mother and her enjoyment of the physical comforts of Clara's middle class home captured my attention much more than Clara's internal struggles, and for me, the chapters told from her viewpoint are the clear highlight of the book.
Good to a Fault has the potential to be incredibly heart-wrenching and thought provoking, and while it did pull at my emotions, it was only a gentle tug. I found myself thinking more about why I didn't particularly care about Clara than about the true concept of good or any of the other larger issues I'm sure the novel is meant to invoke. I'll admit that Endicott's book is lovely. It tells an interesting story filled with angst and unanswerable questions, and the prose is clever, elegant, and musical. Even so, something's missing. Clara's story is a refreshing take on suburban ennui and the joys and sorrows of motherhood, but her character and motivation fall flat in comparison with the vivid depiction of her loved ones and her charity cases. If Clara is truly "good,” or at least somewhere in that vicinity, as the book seems to suggest, does that mean she's also boring? I'm inclined to believe that what makes a person good is not necessarily what makes them interesting, and I'd rather read about someone interesting than someone good.
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott