05/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How To Be Good: Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott started out as a quiet book, then it stealthily cranked up, building its plot and its characters until suddenly I found myself ensnared and unable to put the book down. Good to a Fault turned out to be not so quiet, after all. Flaring questions of right and wrong, of doing right and settling debts, and of trying for justice but falling short every time, come straight out of the situation the characters find themselves in, and fire truly and surely into the heart of the reader.

Clara Purdy lives a lonely life, working efficiently at her job and living cleanly in the house she grew up in, attending church for the sake of her mother's memory and leaving her father's workshed untouched out of respect for the life he lived. One day she crashes into another car, overturning the lives of the family inside as well as her own. Clara takes on new responsibilities - caring for the children of the family - and finds new opportunities for being more than she ever hoped for: mother, lover, caretaker of a family. However, the unexpected happens - again, and again - and each time Clara must decide what is good behavior, what is wrong, and what is necessary for survival.

Good to a Fault is about much more than figuring out what it means to be a good person: that would be too simple (although Endicott does unfurl the question of mutual benefit: if doing good has the benefit of making Clara feel good about herself, is it only ego pushing her to do good and not the quality of her soul?). We can all agree to cause no harm and help those in need of help. But Endicott goes deeper into the real life situations we face, circumstances of unfairness, of arbitrary punishments and rewards. Which is the right path to follow when we are mistreated by life, or when we stand to benefit from someone else's misfortune? Submission to fate? Or battling against (or for) the hand we've been dealt?

Perhaps "goodness" is defined by grace in the face of life's unfairness: how a person acts when her husband leaves, when his sister dies, when something she wants so much is denied her, or when it is granted, against all expectations. Life can be so brutally unfair, as demonstrated in the book by the children with parents who hug them existing side by side with children whose parents pinch so hard as to leave bruises; or the child born into financial security compared to the ones who arrives in a cycle of homelessness. As adults, we have to accept the inequity doled out by life but at the same time, not give into it. If we just give in, we are battered around like a kite in the wind, and that is not goodness at all.

Endicott slowly and expertly draws her characters to the understanding that they need help to handle life's ups and downs. Seeking help, they turn to the most popular forms of aid: religion, family, and community. Or they escape altogether, finding oblivion from their problems in drinking, fighting, thieving, or running away.

Endicott introduces another alternative and it is a lovely one: poetry as a salve for life's rudeness. She offers through her characters the words of among others Philip Larkin, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and Stevie Smith. At times the poetry is uplifting, and at times, not so much, as in these words from Matthew Arnold:

"...the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, not help for pain..."

Poetry, like life, has its high moments and its low. The magic - the goodness - in life and in poetry is in finding beauty both high and low, and sharing what is found, as Endicott shares with us in Good to a Fault.