Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 10, 2010

Reading Canada: Good to a Fault vs Hair Hat

Welcome to Round 2 of my Reading Canada marathon in which I attempt desperately to read all five Canada Reads 2010 books, as well as those for Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads Independently over at Pickle Me This!  I’m actually half way there, have previously read two of the remaining books, and am about to take an 11-day vacation by train out to the East Coast – so things are looking good!  I may hit that target yet.

Good to a Fault and Hair Hat were both books that, not long ago, I would have found off-putting.  I came to think of them affectionately as “the two books starring a lot of people I hate”, but this is in no way criticism.  Endicott and Snyder are describing people in painful, vulnerable, warts-and-all detail that highlights the best of the novel writer’s craft.

Carrie Snyder showed an especial talent for directing me to the very heart of a character with a mere observation of his or her lifestyle – “sandwiches made with fluffy white bread, cheese and iceberg lettuce that hadn’t yet gone brown in the crisper”.  Or the man who leaves six cents tip every day, convinced it must add up to something – he’s not sure what, but something.  These throwaway details spoke volumes about the people she carves.  I am not a devotee, typically, of the short story and so perhaps this ability to cut to the heart of the matter with expert thrusts is typical of the art.  But for me it was refreshing.

Also refreshing was the length of the book.  I don’t mean this, again, as criticism, but instead as an eye-opening observation.  I’m used to reading long, dense books which so envelop the reader that by the time you’re finished with it you feel like you’ve been in a three-week long coma.  Snyder’s short, sparse book sparkles by comparison.  I didn’t get caught up or lost and put the book down with the same feeling of discovery that I started it out with.

Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault painted a different kind of portrait of unlikable people.  On the one hand we have the Hard Done By Family, tied firmly to your heartstrings by three children who, despite their upbringing and background, are innocent bystanders in life, capable of barely credible feats like repeated re-readings of Vanity Fair at age ten – something we are to suppose any kid could do if only given the opportunity.  On the other hand we have the Meek and Boring Spinster who takes on responsibility for the Hard Done By Family in a reflexive act of something, possibly Goodness.  To make sure we don’t get too Hallmark an impression of her characters, Endicott deconstructs Clara’s goodness as a kind of selfishness and the Gage family’s vulnerability as somewhat self-inflicted, by pride if not by deeper faults.  Then, once we feel both sides are thoroughly blemished with Humanity, she props them both up with a kind of pragmatic gumption and lets you think they might all be Good after all.

I enjoyed the book, though not, I think, because of Endicott’s moralizing but instead because I never believed in an objective goodness in the first place and could just enjoy the simple story of three kids getting a better kick at the can than perhaps they might have got to begin with.  For me, this was a satisfying story of money put to good use.  Clara wasn’t using it, and I found her “hardships” pretty petty compared to the improvements made for the kids.  Maybe this was my inner mommy taking over my reading, but once the children were introduced, everyone else’s personal drama ceased to have any relevance.

I’d like to now address my confusion with its blurbs and reviews.  I have heard several people refer to the book as a “painful read” and the quote from Elizabeth Hay on the front cover of my copy also led me to expect the kind of story that makes you wince with sympathy for the main characters: Hay tells us we’re about to embark on a discovery of the fine difference “between being useful and being used”.  I find this assessment baffling.  If anyone was using anybody, Clara was using those kids to get some meaning in her life.  And it seemed to benefit them, so who loses in this scenario?  Seemed pretty win/win to me.  I wonder if maybe I was supposed to feel that Clara was more hard done by than I did?  Was I supposed to feel bad that she had sleepless nights and a dirty living room?  Or that her phone card got charged up when she herself refused to cancel it?  I missed it, in any case.  I didn’t see any “being used”, just “being useful”.  There was no Fault in the Good done in this book, as far as I can see.   This is one book I look forward to hearing the official Canada Reads debates on – I really wonder if I missed the point.

This was an enjoyable two weeks of reading!  Jade Peony is off to a off to a good start as well, and I think I’ll dip into Moody Food over my vacation.  Until next time!

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