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Resident blogger Flannery reflects on the complex nature of virtue in Good to a Fault

Hello, readers.

I've been immersed in Marina Endicott'sGood to a Fault for the past several days. (I got to talk to Marina, and her Canada Reads champion, panelist Simi Sara, about the book at this year's launch, as you can see from the photo at left.) The novel and its beleaguered heroine, Clara Purdy, have been on my mind a lot. Clara's story has brought up a lot of contrary thoughts and feelings in me. Sometimes I admire her thoughtfulness, compassion and infinite patience. At other times I wish she'd just get angry, really angry. I've been fantasizing about her flipping out on Clayton mostly (that character gets under my skin).

Now that I'm nearing the end of the novel, I'm in "what's this story all about" mode. About halfway through my reading, the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished" came to mind. But as I neared the end, I realized that's not quite the whole picture. All of it has reminded me of a past reading experience.

When I was a kid I read Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded. It's about a servant girl who is chased around the house by a rakish squire who wants to make her his mistress. She spurns his advances repeatedly and endures his cruelties and in so doing eventually wins his heart. They get married and her "virtue" is rewarded. I loved it.

Many years later, when I was in university, one of my professors spoke about Pamela with scorn. He considered the "virtue" represented calculating and the reward disgraceful. To him, it was simply a means of dramatizing commonplace behaviour (as in "Why buy the milk when you can get the cow for free?"). He argued that virtue is its own reward, and anything else is just good-natured opportunism. I'm pretty sure he even called Pamela a wily tart.

I was shocked. I'd never questioned Pamela's goodness. And it had never occurred to me that the fantasy romance had one or two complicating factors to ponder. But as I read more, I noticed that many authors took up the idea of goodness — what it means to be good, why we strive to be better people, and the rewards of the struggle, if indeed there are any.

Marina Endicott's title pretty much sums up her conception of goodness, at least in my mind. Clara is decent, no doubt. Her selflessness and her willingness to put her charitable nature into action mark her out as definite heroine material. She's smart enough to know that Christian charity ought to be more than rhetoric.

But Endicott ensures there's more to our understanding of Clara, and by extension, more to the nature of goodness. At several points in the novel, there's a strong sense that Clara's actions aren't just altruistic; they're also bound up with her overwhelming desire for family and connection. At 43, she's a spinster (horrible word, I know) with no husband and no children, and though she bears up pretty well she's still sensitive to the way she's perceived by others. More than that, she's lonely and embarrassed about it. As Endicott writes:

"'I see what they need,' she finally said. 'But I am unwilling to help.' But that was not it, she was not unwilling — she was somehow stupidly ashamed of wanting to help."

On top of all the psychological baggage and the external pressures, Clara is dealing with simple biology. The woman has got a whack of unspent maternal instinct to spare. It's all of those things in combination — her decency and her shortcomings and insecurities — that add up to the complicated emotional reality of the novel. Good, yup. Perfect, no. Her reward in the end: a family picnic minus fighting. It's about as much as any of us can hope for, I guess.

What do you think about Clara's actions? More important, do you think that under the same circumstances you'd do what she did? Would you take in that family? I don't think I'm as decent as Clara. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have conveyed my heartfelt apologies with a Hallmark card and an economical floral bouquet.

As always, I'd love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, feelings and ideas in the Comments section below, or drop me a line at canadareads@cbc.ca.

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