Morality and religion are not the same thing. This strikes me as one of those things that ought to be taken for granted, but Good to a Fault reminded me that it isn’t. Morality and ethics have caught my interest in the last couple of years beyond the every day attention I would give those issues just being a person in the world, so when I first heard the premise of Good to a Fault I thought it would be right up my alley. Serious moral inquiry from a Canadian author in a plausible real world situation. That’s not exactly what I got.
Clara Purdy is a woman in her forties whose life stalled after her husband left her and then, later, she spent years caring for her mother when she died. Before that, she was at her father’s bedside as he passed away from cancer. She does something in insurance that’s so irrelevant it’s not worth taking the time to go back and look it up, and she’s a practicing but not exactly devout high church Anglican (so high church is Endicott’s depiction of Anglicanism that this reviewer, raised in the Anglican church and son of a lay-preacher, finds it more than a little Roman, at times uncomfortably so). She’s a comfortably middle-class nobody who’s had disappointments she couldn’t figure out how to come back from, who lives a dull life (though surrounded, it seems, by the most unflappable, giving friends and relatives the world has ever seen), knowing something is missing but not quite sure what. The Gage family are dirt-poor nomads, living out of their car and not really even making the best with what they have. Clayton is shiftless and aggressive, and Lorraine seems to have more or less given up, and though she loves her children fiercely, they’ve gone a touch wild on her, and Dolly seems more the mother at times. Clayton’s mother is with them, and she’s such a bitter, selfish old woman she’s often more a caricature than a character. Clara and the Gages meet when she collides into their car turning left at an intersection. Nobody is seriously injured, but the car is a write-off and while at the hospital Lorraine is diagnosed with late stage cancer. Clara, looking as much to fill the void in her life as to take responsibility for her actions, lets the family stay with her, picking up all the bills no less.
At this point those of you who are interested in applied morality (not necessarily ethics, sorry—the best way I can think of to put the difference as I see it is actually to steal a line from the character Ducky on NCIS: the ethical man knows it’s wrong to cheat on his wife; the moral man actually wouldn’t) might be as excited as I was to see some challenging questions posed. That never really happened. Clayton takes off immediately, his mother is no help at all, and Clara Purdy finds herself sole caregiver to three children and a rickety elderly woman. There are some brief conversations with friends and family over whether the Gage family is her responsibility—they aren’t, but some of their suffering is her fault, and to that extent I think she’s right in that making amends in some way is her responsibility—but no serious argument is ever made against her plan, and she gets a lot of unconditional support. In fact, there’s only two other serious questions that are really addressed in Good to a Fault, so far as I can tell, and only one of them is really worth asking, so of course it’s the one given short shrift. We should talk about that one first.
Morality and religion are not the same thing. After Clara has been caring for the Gage family for some time a woman comes up to her in church and accuses her of being charitable publicly, to get something for herself. Good or bad, wrong or right, it’s not what really matters. What matters is that this woman thinks it means her good works “don’t count”. Don’t count? First, Clara isn’t really doing anything publicly, so that’s not even worth talking about, but second, what does “counting” mean in moral or ethical terms? Leaving aside questions about what is or is not a good act, are the positive outcomes of such an act negated if the act is performed for selfish reasons? In Clara’s case her reasons were neither entirely selfish nor entirely selfless, but I’d say they started out more of the latter than the former. It’s possible that the good acts are negated, but I very much doubt it. The children still have a place to live, food in their bellies, a safe place to sleep. So what then does it mean for something to “count”? There has to be, as there is for Clara and most of the other characters in the book—though, significantly, not the Gages—someone or something to weigh and measure, to make an accounting. There must, in short, be a God. Nobody ever explicitly states that there is no inherent virtue in any human activity, but it’s telling that the characters who have no faith are also the characters who have no material success, who abandon their responsibilities, who have dirty children and unmade beds. (It pissed me off that, even compensating for Lorraine’s cancer and Clara not working, the God-fearing, middle class Clara is far and away a better, more patient mother than Lorraine.)
The closest Good to a Fault ever comes to a genuine moral crisis is when Lorraine (and here I’m going to drop what the genre crown call “spoilers”) recovers and is able to take back her children, Clara doesn’t want to let them go. She goes as far as calling Community Services to make the case that the children would be better of with her. Whether or not that’s true, and that really depends on your idea of what “better off” means, she comes to her senses at the last minute, and the two families have a colossal falling out. The heartbreak Clara feels is genuine, because she does eventually come to love the children, and that’s the point when it becomes more about her than about the kids, or about doing something good, or taking responsibility for her actions, or any of it. And then there’s a fucking interminable picnic, and the book is over, with few questions asked and none even half-assed answered.
Speaking of interminable, this book was way too fucking long. I know I said that about Fall on Your Knees, but I really should have saved that up for Good to a Fault. Pretty much all the thematic points were made in the first hundred pages, and all the rest of them in the last fifty or so. Endicott seems to be packing as much detail as possible into the scenes of Clara bonding with the children, so losing them will have a greater emotional impact. In that sense it’s successful, because that moment and Clara falling apart afterward packs one hell of a punch. It just comes far too late to save the book from being a total slog, and it put off the issues at the core of the plot for far, far too long. Another whack or two from an editorial machete would have helped immeasurably. I really, really wanted to like this book, and I suppose I did, but I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped.