A Good House

A Good House

by Bonnie Burnard

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312420321
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

A resident of London, Ontario, Bonnie Burnard is also the author of two award-winning story collections. A Good House is her first book to be published in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Sitting on one of these porches, hidden in covered darkness, you could feel the weight of the wet summer air on your skin, you could smell it, the soft scent of toilet water and mown grass and lilacs and honeysuckle in that air.... If you sat there long enough, if you were a patient person, you could see through the dark. You just had to start with the most prominent, most easily recognized shapes, the shapes anyone would know and then concentrate, hard.

Reading Group Guide

This widely acclaimed debut novel, so gorgeously yet simply told, depicts no fewer than fifty years in the life of-and in the many familiar lives of-the Chambers family of Stonebrook, Ontario. As Louisa Kamps wrote in The New York Times: "Burnard soon proves, in this increasingly intricate and rewarding book, to have a keen appreciation for the sad, surprising, joyous, important things that happen to people whose lives, by every demographic measure, could be called normal in the extreme. . . . Her painstaking focus on seemingly mundane details makes the events that shape her characters' lives not only believable but also somehow bigger than the moment, universally true." An award-winning bestseller that first appeared in Canada in 1999, A Good House is extraordinarily moving, beautifully crafted, and unforgettable.

Discussion Questions:
1. Given Margaret's pragmatic approach to her life, her awareness of the ways in which "a life gets built," and in particular her cool-headed decision to marry the widowed Bill Chambers, discuss the decades of love she offers to the Chambers family. How does her love show itself? Is it applied differently to different members of the family? How does it change as she gets older and more experienced in her step-motherhood?

2. Like many families of this time and place, the Chambers family, with the exception of Murray's first wife Charlotte, practices emotional restraint in the face of turmoil. Some conversations, for instance the one between Margaret and Patrick about Sylvia's skill as a softball player, begin in one decade and end several decades later. Compare this with the modern assumption that blunt honesty is best and that every ugly detail should be openly discussed.

3. Before she dies, Sylvia's discipline allows her to talk to her children honestly. She seems to be saying to them: "Yes, I am dying, but you still have lives to live, and this matters, too." Do you think Sylvia's approach is rare or common? Explain.

4. Discuss Daphne's fall from the trapeze. Could learning at such a young age that little stands between happiness and catastrophe feasibly affect the style and substance of Daphne's life? Compare Sylvia and Bill's responses to Daphne's fall.

5. Before the emotional strain of raising Meg and then, even more horrible, Paul's accidental death, Andy seems to have a natural capacity for joy. Does that quality leave her entirely-or is there evidence of her younger self later on? Compare the arc of her life with the other women in the novel. Do these women each have an 'essential self' that is tempered by time and fate or do they create new selves as they age?

6. While almost all of the characters are faced with hard individual challenges over the fifty-year span of A Good House, the family as a whole is most severely altered by the deaths of Sylvia and Paul and by Bill's dementia, which is a death of personality or selfhood. How does this family survive each death? In this respect, discuss the nuances of the word "survival."

7. In his young middle age, Patrick has a tendency to want to bring moral order to the life of this family. What is his motivation? Is it honorable? Why does this most careful and most judgmental character engage in an extramarital affair that could only be called superficial?

8. After Patrick's first wife, Mary, has surgery for breast cancer, Margaret insists that Patrick accompany her to the hospital to see Mary, as if she is taking a boy by the ear. Margaret alone seems to be aware of a kind of love that can forget or leap over past insult, past complexity, past heartache. Are gestures of forgiveness usually prompted by fear of something more horrid (in this case the death of the mother of Patrick's children)? Is there a connection between Margaret's insistence here and her pragmatic approach to marrying Bill years earlier? Explain your views.

9. Late in his life, Bill Chambers suffers not from Alzheimer's but from a more common, generalized dementia that alters his personality in very significant ways. Discuss the responses of his wife, children, and grandchildren to this altered state. Who among them has the hardest adjustment to make? Having known Bill Chambers when he was young-and more truly himself-how did you respond to his casual cruelty, his demands, his aggression? Compare him to the standard "evil" character in other novels while also discussing the nature of individual responsibility.

10. In the years immediately preceding the start of the story, North America suffered its most devastating depression-and then came World War II, in which Bill served. With this in mind, compare the expectations, both material and spiritual, of the novel's first generation-Bill, Sylvia, and Margaret-with the expectations of the younger characters.

11. The ending of A Good House features talk, laughter, music, dancing, food, gorgeous clothes, and beautiful pictures, both still and moving. Though no one at the wedding dance tries to pretend that their shared lives have been idyllic, there is nevertheless a feeling of celebration and hope. Does this situation give the novel a cliched "happy ending" quality? Explain why you do or do not think so.

About the Author:
A resident of London, Ontario, Bonnie Burnard is also the author of two prize-winning story collections. A Good House is her first book to be published in the United States.

Customer Reviews

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A Good House 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
cathst on LibraryThing 2 days ago
One of my favourite books of all time.
Romonko on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This book is set in Stonebrook, Ontario. It begins just after WWII, and the book ends in the year of 1997. The book is a family history of the Chambers family-their lives, loves, births, weddings, divorces and deaths. That's a lot to cover especially when the family is a large and gregarious one. But Ms. Burnard does an admirable job of this. This book was the 1999 winner of the prestigious Giller Prize and I think it was a well-deserved honour. Her writing style is deceptively simple, but the character development of this large cast of characters is remarkable. The book covers all sorts of family events and catastrophies, but does it in such an understated style. It is not often that an author can achieve such a complete job of character development within one book. It usually takes a series to achieve this. But Ms. Burnard accomplishes this difficult task with aplomb. These characters live and breathe. The book paints a very rich and complex picture of human nature and human foibles indeed.
tripleblessings on LibraryThing 3 months ago
This novel won the Giller Prize for Canadian fiction. A rich portrait of an ordinary family through several generations from the 1950s to the 1990s. The family is portrayed every 7 years, with sometimes surprising changes from one period to the next. Significant problems occur, family members each have their own struggles, disfunctions and victories, and in the end their relationships endure and their love deepens. Chatelaine magazine said "You don't just read A Good House, you move into it for a while." Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this story many years ago and still consider it one of those special very memorable books. I just pulled it off the shelf to read again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
wow! I'm surprised that so many people enjoyed this book. I am an avid reader, and I do enjoy low key stories, but I found this positively boring from start to finish!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down! It was the best family drama I have ever read. I went through all the same emotions as the characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'A Good House' is a true to life book which I really enjoyed
Guest More than 1 year ago
Comparisons between Burnard,and Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, are probably inevitable, since Atwood and Munro are the two Canadian women writers best known to us in America. However, Burnard is really not like either of these other two. She is not inclined to the bursts of wry observation that lace Munro¿s stories, or Atwood¿s energetic tackling of large social issues. A Good House shows that Burnard is an original voice, worth getting to know in her own right. This is a remarkable book, because it starts off so subtly, drawing you into the everyday lives of the Chambers family, who for the most part are a restrained, well-meaning, intelligent bunch of people. Just when you think nothing will ever create a ripple in their world, ordinary catastrophes befall them, impressing on your that even the most conventional lives can be full of meaningful upheaval, moving tragedy, and poignant reversals. By the end, the characters in this book have such depth and complexity and density that they are breathtaking: Mr. Chambers in his bitter old age, his troubling and feisty disabled granddaughter Meg, and Margaret, the step-mother who becomes the family¿s center, are as compelling and riveting as any characters in the most suspenseful novels. As you read A Good House, the family slowly mesmerizes you, and keeps drawing you back to the page. This is a perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter day -- what a privilege to have such a unique voice introduced to American readers.
harstan More than 1 year ago
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