The Ambiguity of Goodness,
This review is from: Good to a Fault (Paperback)
I have to confess that I read this book very quickly, so may have missed some of its more subtle elements! Endicott's story centres around what it means to be 'good' - does anyone ever act from pure altruism, or are our actions always to some degree ambivalent? Clara Purdy, the heroine of Endicott's novel, is a forty-three-year-old single woman working in a dull clerical job in a small Canadian town. Her one brief marriage ended in disaster, and she has recently lost her mother, her last surviving relative, to whom she was devoted. Clara is lonely, and her only real consolation is her visits to the local church, where she enjoys the sermons of the literature-loving priest, Paul. Clara's life dramatically changes when, pondering over the 'state of her soul', she absent-mindedly crashes her car into another, containing a family with three children. Talking to the victims, whose car is written off, she learns that she has destroyed their home as well as their transport (the family she has crashed into are homeless and jobless), that the father is unreliable, that the grandmother is near dementia, and that the mother, Lorraine, has cancer. Desperate to make amends for crashing into the family car, Clara takes the family to the local hospital, where Lorraine is promptly admitted for treatment, and offers the children, father and grandmother a home for a couple of nights. The father disappears almost immediately, and Clara is left in charge of two small children (Dolly and Trevor) and their baby brother, Pearce, as well as the elderly and eccentric grandmother. Unperturbed, she takes the family in and agrees to be in loco parentis for as long as Lorraine is in hospital. And, together with Lorraine's eccentric traveller brother, who rolls up when he hears his sister is ill, she makes an 'alternative family' for the children, giving them a proper home for the first time in their lives. In doing so, Clara (now renamed Clary by the family) discovers all sorts of new things about herself, and grows increasingly close to the priest Paul, whose marriage is in deep trouble. But are Clara's reasons for acting as she does entirely pure? Has she taken on Lorraine's children in part to compensate for the fact she never had a proper family? And what will happen if Lorraine recovers and wants her family back, without Clara?
This is a novel full of interesting ideas, but also one which I personally found rather stiflingly claustrophobic. It is quite slow in terms of action, and Endicott concentrates so much of her efforts into describing small-town life that I soon felt a bit stifled. The community in which Clara lives is not an immediately attractive one. Few of the inhabitants of the town seem to see beyond the next meal, the next birthday party or Christmas feast, or their daily routines. There seems to be little sense of a life outside the town (surely Clara, who is clearly smart, might have thought about getting out and getting a job somewhere else at some point?). Apart from Dolly and Paul, and maybe Clara's Polish neighbour, no one really seems to have many cultural or intellectual interests, or even ambitions. Those elements of the plot that I found really interesting - Dolly's love of stories and realization of the wonderful world in books, Paul's struggles with his marriage and his faith and obsession with poetry - were underdeveloped compared to the vast amount of prose dedicated to describing endless domestica, meals, and sometimes quite banal conversations. I thought the love story was subtly handled but also found it developed in a rather strange way, and I found Clara's changing attitude to her faith progressively more depressing - was the implication that God had only ever been a substitute for her for love and friendship? I ended the book feeling that some interesting moral and emotional ideas had got rather squashed in the morass of descriptions of small town life. Still, there was a lot to admire here, and I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Canadian literature.