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Traps of doing good

MORE than once in Marina Endicott's new novel, "Good to a Fault," you might wonder if you've wandered into the world of Barbara Pym and her "excellent women."

There's the poetry-quoting Anglican vicar who lacks a proper help meet. And the wittily rendered minutiae of a meddlesome community. And, of course, an inquisitive spinster, Clara Purdy, defined by the absence of Event in her life. Even the metaphors seem plucked from lavender and mothballs.

"Her self," we are told of Clara, "was an abandoned sampler, half the letters unstitched, the picture in the middle still vague." Yet we're not in postwar England but in contemporary Saskatchewan, and Clara's life is about to be filled with Event. It comes in the first paragraph.

Who cares that it's a ludicrous contrivance? Clara is driving to the bank on her dull lunch break from her dull job when she smacks into an oncoming car. Out pop the occupants: mom, dad, little boy, little girl, baby, grandma. Boom and eureka. You'll find abundant variations on the accidental family in fiction and in life, but the one Endicott selects for the childless, parentless, partnerless Clara is peerless - and literal.

The down-and-out Gage family had been living in their car. In the aftermath of the crash, they're bundled off to hospital, where the young mother, Lorraine, is found to have cancer. Once the injured Gages are patched up, a guilt-racked Clara installs them in her own well-ordered little house. Except for Lorraine, who remains in the hospital, her future uncertain.

Lorraine's husband soon skips out, but not before helping himself to Clara's cash, a silver teapot and a car belonging to her late mother. Now Clara steps up as the mom, the sustaining resource for five lives connected to her own by nothing more than a chance encounter.

Clara's motive is central to the novel's plot. Is she really committed to "doing good," or is she primarily fulfilling a deep yearning for a family of her own? She gets some answers from Paul Tippett, her newly separated vicar, who has few words of his own but compensates by stringing together snippets of Rilke, Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin. Clara is alternately "worn out with all this eventful life" and increasingly dedicated to it. Her visits to Lorraine in the hospital are a constant reminder that the real mom waits in the wings.

"That cancer card trumps everything," Clara thinks. But it doesn't really. Not in this story, anyway. Although Lorraine's illness casts its shadow over everything, it's the quieter introspective dramas, provided by Endicott's skillful rotation among the characters' points of view, that hold your attention. The clearest observations are saved for moments of suffering less obvious than Lorraine's. "Telephone poles clicked past the bus window," Endicott writes of the lonely vicar, "tallying the distance, the wires swooping him on from point to point, back to his empty house."

Although novels like this can be enfolding, that effect will disappear if you flinch from their embrace. I flinched only when the plot moved with ungainly haste toward its resolution. John Updike once said that Pym's "Excellent Women" was "a startling reminder that solitude may be chosen, and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience."

And so it can. Endicott reaches for more than that with her oddball plot, but in the end those are the precincts she's patrolling.


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