Thursday, July 9, 2009

Relative Reads Review - A Good House by Bonnie Burnard

I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send me some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek.

A Good House by Bonnie Burnard (recommended by Aunt Rhoda)
published 1999
309 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

A Good House begins in 1949 in Stonebrook, Ontario, home to the Chambers family. The postwar boom and hope for the future color every facet of life: the possibilities seem limitless for Bill, his wife Sylvia, and their three children.

In the fifty years that follow, the possibilities narrow. Sylvia’s untimely death marks her family indelibly but in ways only time will reveal. Paul’s perfect marriage yields an imperfect child. Daphne unabashedly follows an unconventional path, while Patrick discovers that his happiness requires a series of compromises. Bill confronts the onset of old age less gracefully than anticipated, and throughout, his second wife, Margaret, remains, surprisingly, the family anchor.

This extraordinarily moving and beautifully crafted first novel was a number one bestseller in Canada where it won one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, the Giller Prize, in 1999.

My thoughts:

This is a very quiet book. It tells the story of the Chambers family from 1949, when Bill and Sylvia are a newly married couple, to 1997, when Bill and his second wife, Margaret, are grandparents, watching their grandchildren marry. It's not really a story about any one particular thing - just the lives of this family, as they love and win and lose over the years. But, because of that, it's about nearly everything - family, and love, and loss, and winning, and defeat, and all the tiny, mundane things that hold a family together, no matter what, through all the years.

The first chapters of the novel are involved more intimately with the characters' lives - there are just a few, Bill and Sylvia and their children, and so Burnard gives the reader a chance to delve more deeply into their stories. As the years pass, the family grows larger, and Burnard must skim over much more of what happens to each particular character - suddenly, children are born and grown, spouses come and go, making the individuals seem more distant. For readers (like me), who really enjoy connecting with specific characters, this distance can make the second half of the novel less rewarding than the first. I found it to be an interesting parallel to a real family - the more we multiply, the less we are able to know each other intimately.

I especially enjoyed the sections about the children growing up in their small town. There were moments when something in the story made me recall an exact moment of my own childhood so clearly - specifically, the chapter where the kids put on a circus. I can remember my sister and I, and some neighborhood kids, putting on "shows" at my grandma's house, complete with costumes and batons. We'd make the adults sit and watch us - it was really pretty pitiful, I'm sure. But these paragraphs really resonated with me, and I felt like I understood these characters' lives:

"There were tough kids and kids not nearly tough enough, but most of them were assumed to be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. If there were quarrels or fights, and occasionally there were, these were not reported back to parents because parents never did anything anyway. Parents couldn't save you. When kids came home muddy and soaking wet or bleeding from an unusual wound or cranky or worried or defeated, there was no great fuss. A dish of ice cream, a bowl of cereal, a joke, a bath, a bandage, a good night's sleep, these were the solutions."

Burnard has written short story collections, and in a way, this novel was similar to a collection - each chapter had its own beginning and end, and didn't really carry over into the next. Things happened, and then we move on, and something else happens, and then we move on - the only thing really tying each section together was the constant desire of the family to hold itself together, no matter what was going on around it.

I was also interested in her portrayal of the family as a group - a very clearly defined, members-only type group, with their own set of rules and expectations. Whenever a new person was introduced, THEY were required to conform to the group. There was never any question of the group changing to meet them. And if someone inside the group varied from their unspoken rules, there were swift consequences - the rules were set, no deviation tolerated. It's interesting to think of a family in this way. I tend to believe my own family is much more tolerant of new people and ideas, but I've never had to try to experience it as an outsider. I wonder how true that assumption is.

I don't think this novel will be for everyone - it's thin character development and slow moving narration will likely be frustrating for some readers. I ultimately liked the novel. It felt comforting to me, like a warm blanket to curl up under. I was interested in Burnard's examination of the family, and how its members respond to each other and to outsiders over the years. It's a novel about nothing, and everything, and well worth the time I spent inside its covers.

Finished: 7/4/09
Source: Franklin Avenue library
Rating: 7/10

This book counts toward:


Beth F said...

I, too, was blessed with growing up in a reading family -- including all four grandparents and all my cousins and aunts and uncles. I like the idea of highlighting family recommendations.

Kay said...

What a great idea! I too had a house of readers :)

I loved your review!

s said...

What a great idea! I have a couple aunts who read.... we dont really bond... but maybe this would make a sort of "book bridge" for us. I am seeign them in a few weeks.... I'll ask.

Super post!

Sheila DeChantal said...

Hee hee... that last post was suppose to have my name but I hit the submit too quick....

You dont have to call me "s"....


Zibilee said...

I really enjoy in depth and meandering reads that focus on families, so this book is of real interest to me. I am really glad that you reviewed this one here and I will definitely be looking for this book. It sounds like a comfortable and interesting read. Great review and Thanks for exposing me to this one!