Marina Endicott's excellent novel Good to a Fault, shortlisted last year for the Giller Prize, is the story of Clara Purdy, a divorced and childless 43-year-old woman, who crashes into the car of a family who happens to be living in it. It turns out that no one has been hurt in the accident -- except the car -- but at the hospital the mother, Lorraine, is discovered to have cancer. She is immediately admitted so that it can be aggressively treated. There are three children: Dolly, Trevor, and the baby, Pearce. There is also an angry, inept father, Clay, and his elderly and equally inept mother. Because they have nowhere to go, because she was at fault in the accident, because she feels sorry for the mother, and because, deep down, she wants to, Clara takes them all into her home. Clay absconds with the contents of Clara's wallet and her car and she is left with the children and their grandmother, who behaves as much like a child as any of them. What follows is a deeply moving love story and a truly wise examination of what it means to be good. There are a couple of love stories in this novel, actually, but the most important one is between Clara and the children:
"There is the world," Clara told him. "There is the moon."
He reached his finger out to it, and he looked back at her, to make sure she saw too. Beloved. She dabbed him dry with a couple of tea-towels from the drawer, so the water could evaporate and cool him that way. She dried between his fingers and his beautiful toes while he stared and stared at her, at the amazing presence of another human being. Clara had never understood that a baby could be so physically, solidly satisfying. When she picked him up to take him back to the crib, he put his arm around her neck in a tender way, a partner in this. Not only a baby but a person, too, already.
Pearce was still staring at the bears in his crib when Clara heard a noise from the children's room. It was Trevor, awake and crying.
"My mom," he said -- she could hardly make it out. She lifted him down off the bunk, took him to her room and tucked him into her bed. His shuddering gradually calmed.
Dolly appeared at the door. One a.m. "What's wrong?" she asked, tears in her eyes too.
"They're fine, Dolly. Come and sit with Trevor for a minute, and we'll see if we can sing Pearce to sleep."
Clara went to their room, opened the window, and left the curtains open, plumped up their pillows and added a fleece blanket over Trevor's duvet. Then she put them back to bed. She sat in the semi-cave of the lower bunk, smoothing Dolly's shin; Pearce lay curled on her lap, happy to be held.
"Betty Pringle, she had a pig," Clara sang for Trevor, and he chimed in softly almost with the tune. "As on my way to Strawberry Fair," she sang and "Baby's boat is silver moon, sailing in the sky." She felt Dolly going limp as she patted her, and heard her breathing change. She stopped singing.
"That was wonderful," Trevor said from above her.
Clara sat in the little cave wondering if she would be able to recall this later, when she was an old woman alone in some nursing home, if she would remember Trevor saying wonderful, and the sleeping weight of Pearce on her lap, and Dolly under her hand, and how she'd done that herself, put them at ease, even though they were not her own.
Of course, things don't stay like that, even though there is nothing Clara wants more. There is a brief, interesting forewarning or parallel, deeply satisfying to lovers of children's literature -- Dolly, nourishing herself with books about orphans, reads Mistress Masham's Repose, and thinks:
I can't recommend Good to a Fault highly enough -- it a perfect example of how a work of "women's domestic fiction" can also be a "social novel" in the truest sense.