Francois Gravel's engaging family saga, A Good Life, translated by Sheila Fischman, defines the nature and value of its title in the simplest terms. It means creating jobs, supporting families, and bringing up children. At least that's what Louis Fillion believes. Louis is the patriarch and main character of the biographical story narrated by one of his sons, Benoit.
A better title for the novel might have been Fillion, FrFres & Sons & Daughters. Benoit, a University professor of Management, has "learned to be wary of graphs and organizational charts, to look more closely at what goes on beyond the numbers, to study aspects that don't fit any theories, to take an interest in all those little things that slip along the most tenuous of threads, little things that life consists of, and that all this is what we lose sight of at times, and it's what we should be trying to safeguard." Those details Benoit tries to protect are summed up in 40 brief chapters which trace his father's life from 1929 to the 1960s. What results is a series of character sketches of "a normal family for the time."
In some ways, Louis Fillion becomes the central character of the novel by default. His own father, Etienne, had been the foreman of a canning factory in Montreal when the Crash hit. Louis is ten years old. When his father cannot open a jam jar, his mother asks Louis to open it. This simple act ends the father's power position in the family. The rest of the novel details Louis's development into an "excellent salesman [w]ho never stopped hating his work."
By the fall of 1935, Louis is recycling free discarded wood from a neighborhood lumber business into bundles of kindling. His ingenuity gains him a job at Lunn's furniture store where he skillfully manipulates customers into buying more than they think they want. By 1940, Louis and his brothers have started manufacturing highchairs which will lead them into their own furniture empire catering to French-Canadians. Gravel is at his best when he creates miniature impressions of several secondary characters. In an attempt to encroach on the Fillion Brothers' woodworking business, the Irish Dorgan boys steal a "magic wheelbarrow" which becomes useless once winter arrives and there are no boats to bring in wood shipments. One of Louis's sisters, Juliette, becomes a nun, traveling to Japan and China before retiring to a Canadian convent. Sympathetic Roland Vinet is an accountant who takes Louis's alcoholic brother, Edouard, a failed cleric, under his wing.
Gravel also does an admirable job at drawing supposed psychological distinctions between men and women. Cracker barrel discussions at the local grocery store determine that women "think far" and men "think close." Men are interested only in big ideas; women in the details. Those details interest Benoit as he narrates incidents of a mother seeking a sense of independence in the 1960s. In order to "realize her potential," she moves from being a part-time cashier, to head cashier, to a management position.
If there are any flaws in this otherwise enchanting story of the Fillion family, it's that it lacks drama and narrative drive. It has none of the charm of Bonnie Burnard's A Good House or the accumulated dimension of Carol Shields's subtle The Stone Diaries. The short chapters provide passing glimpses of the people and the social events that surround them. War touches them at a distance, except for the absence of a brother who is vaguely mentioned. It "puts money in the workers' pockets." In the end, however, A Good Life has its own appeal. It is a dedicated genealogical study of the simple life of an ordinary family.
Robert Allen Papinchak is a book critic in the Seattle, Washington, area who regularly reviews Canadian novels for numerous publications.