Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region

Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2010

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2008

When the shortlist came out for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize I had only heard of one title, Cockroach by Rawi Hage; I set out to discover a little bit about each of the other shortlisted books and was instantly interested in Marina Endicott’s first novel, Good to a Fault. The accolades continued to pile up including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a spot on the Globe and Mail Best Book list, and recently a spot on Canada Reads. The story is simple enough: a single, fairly well-off insurance salesperson, runs into a car carrying a homeless family. The mother ends up being diagnosed with lymphoma and lives in the hospital; the father, who is one of the most interesting characters of the book, runs out on the bunch of them; and Clara, the driver at fault, takes in the children and the cantankerous old grandmother, Mrs. Pell, into her large empty home, eventually taking it over. This book certainly met my expectations; I found it read very slow, even for me, a self-admitted slow reader, and was very densely written. This is not a criticism, more so a surprise. This book is not driven by constant action; being a dramatist by trade, Endicott instead drives the novel with a theatrical blend of quiet honesty and subtle human interactions.

One topic that came up in the debate for Canada Reads 2010 was the “Canadian-ness” of the novels; many of the panelists said that they view this book as one of the “least Canadian.” While I was reading it I saw the exact opposite. In the opening few chapters the idea of fault is examined: Clara is an insurance agent, who’s job it is to asses fault. This opening irony is one of the key themes of the books. As the novel progresses you see Clara thrown into motherhood head first; she is in charge of 2 active children and a young baby with Mrs. Pell constantly over her shoulder. This is where the previously mentioned “Canadian-ness” comes into play. What is more Canadian that helping those in need, strangers, with no obligation, simply because you feel it is your job as a fellow human, albeit guilt may have played a significant role in this decision. Without giving too much away of the plot and ending, this theme constantly roars its head at each turn in the novel.

The writing style  is interesting. It is written in the third-person with constantly changing perspectives. This shifting is one of the reasons I found this book a somewhat slow and dense read, but this is also part of the book’s charm. The first few chapters were told almost solely from Clara’s point-of-view; for the first 50 to 75 pages one thought that was persistent in me was that this novel should have been written from a first person perspective. As the narration started switching to more and more characters I came around to Ms. Endicott’s reasoning. The interior monologues and musings make this story what it is. This is ultimately a story about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation with lots of time to contemplate their circumstances. If it wasn’t for the internal dialog this would be a pretty dull story: it would be about 35 pages long and would often talk about people “thinking intently.”

Moral of this review: pick up this book and read it. This novel could be seen, at first glance, as an overly didactic tale written to make you a better person, this could not be farther from the truth. This is the very pragmatic story of two women, 3 kids, and a universe of supporting characters just trying to make it through life one day at a time, just like most people. 2008 was a great year for Canadian novels; had this been released a couple years earlier or later, I really believe it would have cleaned up the major awards. Good to a Fault has the qualities that are typical of a piece that will last way beyond its writer’s time; it is universal; it is not specifically of any particular time, by that I mean there is nothing in here that would seem alien to people 50 years from now; and it has characters that could be anyone of us. Great novel; I am looking forward to reading Marina Endicott’s other book of fiction and her great works that will, no doubt, appear in the future.

3 responses

  1. Although I haven’t read it, I too thought of the themes and idea as Canadian. The style and the subject matter seem quite Canadian to me: the reality of CanLit is that much of it is rather deep and serious and reflective and even depressing. (There are hilarious CanLit novels as well, but they’re few and far between to my mind. CanLit is usually marked by heavy theme).

    From the beginning the idea of the book intrigued me but I couldn’t be persuaded to pick it up, probably because of the unconvincing reviews. I think I’m just going to have to make up my own mind.

  2. Definitely a book I’ve been hearing a lot about. I’ll be sure to pick it up! Thanks.

  3. I enjoyed this story more as I got into it. At first I thought she was going too far in disrupting her own life for this family but eventually it seemed almost normal that a Canadian woman would act this way. It was different and I’m glad it got the attention it deserves.

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