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A Good House: A Novel Paperback – October 5, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

It's not an easy thing to write a novel about a family. Of necessity--and as the narrative years advance--characters proliferate, success and tragedy accrue, events maneuver to the fore with faintly arbitrary impetus. First-time novelist Bonnie Burnard, however, evades such worn grooves with the purest renunciation: a patient and lovely voice. In A Good House, awarded Canada's Giller Prize in 1999, Burnard documents an Ontario family over half a century with unadorned, deliberate, and tender sympathy.

Flush with post-World War II optimism, veteran Bill Chambers and his wife Sylvia settle in to the business of raising their three young children. Bill logs full days at the local hardware store; Sylvia strings the family's clothes out to dry in the backyard and proffers dinner punctually. Her wasting health, however, leaves her husband yearning for a contentment now stolen and her children disquieted by the sudden tenuousness of their security. When Sylvia dies and Bill remarries, his staunch and pragmatic bride Margaret displays a three-fold capacity: she allows him his sluggish and methodical affection; she preserves Sylvia's memory with untainted regard; and she cultivates a deft empathy with her stepchildren.

Burnard's meticulous pacing nearly, but never quite, upstages the story itself, although her unwieldy and expanding cast of characters occasionally threatens such harm. Margaret is the real wonder of the book. While the requisite affairs, divorces, and funerals intervene--and as Bill declines excruciatingly into a belligerent stranger--she summons a reserve of affection, the source of which is admirably opaque. She perseveres in "hoping as mothers and fathers almost always do that the difficulties could be examined, could be broken apart and fixed one by one by one." Burnard's tale is dignified and generous. --Ben Guterson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1952, 12-year-old Daphne Chambers falls from a trapeze and is left with a permanently asymmetrical face. In 1955, Daphne's mother, Sylvia, dies of cancer at age 40. From these two life-altering events, Canadian short story writer Burnard spins her engrossing debut novel, a traditional generational saga that unfolds with quiet grace and measure. Told from a variety of points of view, the book traces the upheavals and affirmations of the very ordinary Chambers family of Stonebrook, Ontario, from 1949 to 1997. The year after Sylvia's death, her husband, Bill, an injured WWII vet, remarries. His new wife, the unflappable Margaret, who used to work with him at the town hardware store, helps him raise his three children. Paul, the baby, becomes a hockey star and eventually a farmer, marrying young; oldest brother Patrick, a lawyer, is destined to be the keeper of family secrets; and middle child Daphne makes an eccentric choice for that time and place: she'll become the single mother of two daughters. As the years pass, the family, in nuclear and then extended form, gathers around the kitchen table to celebrate and to mourn. There are no saints, no Jobs, no Hamlets in Burnard's tale, just flawed people making the best possible choices given the passions and options of the moment, choices that sometimes require disingenuousness, stonewalling and outright lies. Changes in the initially remote town of Stonebrook are a significant strand in the narrative weave. Flashes of sly humor and an ability to avoid sentimentality are some of Burnard's skills, and the narrative's calm flow (once one gets past an initial excess of detail) builds to a deeply moving story of the truths of family life. 50,000 first printing; major ad/promo; author tour. (Sept.) FYI: A bestseller in Canada, this novel won the 1999 Giller Prize.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st Thus. edition (October 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312420323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312420321
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,650,186 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Cathleen on September 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This novel tells the story of one family, 3 generations, over a span of 50 years. Burnard allows us to share in their happiness, anger and grief, as well as all those other parts day-to-day existence.
The simple writing can seem one-dimensional at first glance, but take a slightly closer look and all the layers of the characters, their lives, and the story open up before you in this beautiful tapestry that we call "life."
I can honestly say that this book had a strong impact on me, to the point where I think it might actually be a life-changer for me. "A Good House" is the newest addition to my list of all-time favourite books.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Klausner #1 HALL OF FAME on August 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In 1949 Stonebrook, Ontario, Bill and Sylvia Chambers and their three children feel optimistic about the future after the gloom of the recent war. However, the boom economy fails to keep reality out as a few years later, Sylvia dies. Not too long after that, Bill marries Margaret Kemp.

Over the subsequent years, happiness and tragedy strike the now extended Chambers family. Through the best and worst of times, Margaret surprisingly becomes the glue that keeps the family together even as new families have been formed and the younger generation moves on to new lives.

A GOOD HOUSE is a very good character study of a Canadian family during the latter half of the twentieth century. The story line is low keyed, but very insightful into the desires, motives, and even the "protective" lies that provide the audience with a full look (so deep readers will feel voyeuristic) into the heart and soul of the lead cast. Though by the latter years the extended family becomes difficult to keep track of, that approach adds depth to the prime players by showing the new tugs on their time and emotion, which in turn drags them away from one another. Bonnie Burnard writes an intriguing tale that shows when discerning "voyeurism" can be entertaining, realistic, and perceptive.

Harriet Klausner
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a beautiful book. It lulls you and pulls you into the world of a Canadian family from the war years on -- a group of ordinary, decent people who brave life's usual difficulties: kids' accidents, the deaths of loved ones, troubled children, good people undone by old age. You can tell that this author loves people: the stuff of ordinary life, she seems to say, is worth our attention. As an American reader, I enjoyed this book because the characters also seem a little exotic in their own way (if you can think of Canadians as exotic). These are fairly stoic people, a little repressed, moral, genuinely preoccupied with the importance of acting decently. This is not a book that relies on fabricated drama or cute characters to grab your attention. Instead what you get is the wisdom of an author who really knows people, and who is able to capture the small and great events in their lives with beautiful, precise language. This is also a novel that acquires momentum and becomes more profound with every page. The portrait of Mr. Chambers in his old age is powerful, moving and brilliant.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By on November 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This novel beguiled me from the back cover intro right through to the superbly satisfying ending with its slow, elegant pace. Readers who want speed and sensation should look elsewhere. This is for readers who want to turn every page slowly and thoughtfully and reflect on the lives of the characters. Bonnie Burnard pierced my heart with her truths several times - particularly the experiences that I shared with the characters. Each of the characters is slowly revealed over the years and spotlit in their own time. I think this is a masterpiece and I am recommending it to my writers group as an example of the honestly we should have the courage to write with. Anyone who enjoys Jane Hamilton and Barbara Kingsolver will be more than happy with this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "binkholt" on January 31, 2001
Format: Hardcover
If I were an author, I would imagine that deciding to try to make a very average family interesting to a reader would be a daunting task. This author seems to have decided that it can not only be interesting, but can be affirming as well. The best word that I can think of to describe this book is lyrical. Please don't expect this book to grab you in the first 20 pages and then take you for a roller coaster ride. IT WON"T. What it WILL do is rock you, comfortably, with a series of compelling changes to a single family over a period of many years. In some ways, it reads more like a biography. I will admit that I found myself wondering, in the first chapter or two, where the author was going. I will also admit that I was surprised to find myself caring so much about these characters, some of whom were all too similar to some in my own family. Sure, there are LOTS of characters to keep straight...and I admit that I was a bit confused at times. Try explaining your extended family to a stranger sometime...not an easy task for most of us, and the story is often in the details. This author DEPENDS on the details to progress her story, and, extensive though they may be, they are necessary to creating the true sense of place that permeates the book. This is one of my 2 favorite reads of the year 2000, and frankly, I was a bit surprised by that myself. This family lingers in your memory, and is almost too human. The achievement of the author is simple in concept, if not in the doing. She creates a family that is, if not "normal" based on the reader's personal experience, is still "average" enough to allow the reader to relate to them. Bonnie Burnard answers the questions that you wish you could (or had the courage to) ask of your own family. Sometimes I found these answers infuriating. Still, I was glad that she asked them for me...certainly easier than asking them myself.
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