B Reads Canada Reads: Why Do Women Identify With Good To a Fault?

As you may have gathered from my incessant Twittering, I did not love this book. This is not because it's awful - the characters are among the most real I've encountered and author Marina Endicott's understated prose lets the events, emotions and things both said and unsaid shine through. No, the problem was a niggling one, small but persistent. I thought that perhaps the book wasn't written for me. I am, after all, an urbane 20-something reading about a middle-aged woman from the prairies. However, I've enjoyed books about mature women before, such as The Summer After the Dark, The Diviners etc.

And then I realized that I have the same itchy feeling that I did when the whole Bridget Jones craze let loose.

I sympathize with Bridget, I really do. Here's an example of a real woman struggling with inadequacies spurred on by constant images of multi-tasking, upbeat career women or of pin thin models with bodies sans jiggly bits or even lady mag articles that tell you that cool-headed sanity is a vacation, a yoga session, a goji berry or even a pricey cashmere wrap away.

We want to be loved just as we are, not as a very tidied up, make-believe version of ourselves. And then along comes Colin Firth was his lopsided smile, mop of boyish hair and that plummy accent to tell Bridget that she's perfect for him. Cue the collective sigh.

I applaud recognizing the problem (we need to love ourselves, flaws included!) but not the solution (a dashing man can do that for you!)

Same deal with Good To a Fault. Guilt is a peculiarly female issue. As girls we are taught to be nice, to smile and be positive, to support others and be a good friend and daughter. Not all of us are totally successful at this sunshine-y exercise but most of us retain the burden of trying to hack it for the rest of our lives.

A recent study published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology shows that women feel more guilt than men and middle-aged women (aged 40-50) feel the most guilt of all. The study leader postulates that this is so because women are socially conditioned to feel guilt; there is no physiological basis.

Many people, especially women, seem to love Good To a Fault. To relate to it. And I'm not going to mince words here, that makes me sad. Clary is in her forties when the book opens and she finds her life has disappeared without much having happened at all. She's stayed at her boring job because it's safe and she took care of her demanding mother up until her death. When she crashes into a destitute family she takes them into her home. This isn't really an extreme move for her; Clary has been putting others before herself her whole life.

In her new book, Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert states that all across the board, marriage is more beneficial for men than women. Why is this? Because women are givers. We stand behind our men, so to speak. But many of us give more than we take back and so we're drained, a bit resentful, anxious.

It's said that feminism has had its day. And others use it as a tool to fight for women's rights in areas of the world where women are still second class citizens. But if women are still burdened by a guilt that eats away at their quality of life then that means that feminism's job is not done here either. We're still second class to ourselves.

What do you think?


kirbc said...

I don't think I identified with Clara (she is, in many ways, my worst nightmare), but I did empathize with her. Which is ultimately what made me respect the book and Endicott so much.


Steven W. Beattie said...

I didn't think that Clara was as sympathetic a character as many people seem to. In many ways, she's shown to be rather selfish: doing what she does as a means of bolstering her own sense of self-worth rather than out of a genuine sense of altruism. That said, to the extent that the entire novel is a meditation on the Biblical question, "Who is my brother?", I don't think Clara's gender is much of an issue.

Christine Dobby said...

I haven't read the book but I love this post. Trying to be good in all areas of life can get pretty exhausting.

I enjoy your blog.

B.Kienapple said...

I'm not sure that people find Clara a sympathetic character so much as a relatable one - her selfishness echos our uncertainty as to the purity of our own intentions. You could apply this to men and women, true, but as for guilt, specifically, I think that's more of a female issue.

B.Kienapple said...

Thank you Christine! I really appreciate that.

Scrat said...

What I liked about this book was that Endicott reveals that our motives are not always as simple and pure as we like to tell ourselves they are. Perhaps this idea is not new but the nuances in her story reveal just how difficult it is to be honest and accept that giving is often motivated by selfishness as much as by selflessness.

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie said...

Really interesting thoughts you brought up about this book.
I've got mixed feelings about this one. I felt as though I enjoyed it, although I did not relate to Clary at all I was anxious to see how she would deal with the temporary state of her situation. However, once I was done reading and my mind couldn't escape the idea that beneath the story was the message that a woman is not making good use of her life unless she has a family (close and extended). I can understand that some women may honestly feel this way, but at the same time I feel so badly for the way society views women who are happy to live solitary (or childless) lives.

B.Kienapple said...

Scrat and Joanne, I like both your takes on this book. Reading this book made it even more apparent to me how much our motives work in a gray area between good and evil however it even more so impressed upon me how important it is to accept our fallible nature! Clary expended SO much energy hating on herself in this book it has made me swear off self-cruelty forever!


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