Stephanie's Reviews > The Good Father

The Good Father by Diane Chamberlain
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May 28, 12

bookshelves: women-s-fiction, mainstream
Read in May, 2012

3.5 stars

This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.


Diane Chamberlain is known for writing character-driven women’s fiction that unapologetically tugs on the heart-strings, and The Good Father follows in this very successful niche. The second book of Chamberlain’s I’ve read, the first being The Midwife’s Confession, which examined grief and grieving, The Good Father is squarely focused on the parental experience and the intergenerational influence and role of parents. As the title suggests, it looks at why people act in ways that may be inconceivable to others when there is a child involved: why sense, legality and safety can be done away with in a heartbeat if it means protecting that child.

The Good Father is told from three alternating viewpoints, and also crosses back and forth across time, making it rather difficult to succinctly summarise, and admittedly, rather difficult to make sense of initially. After the confusion of the first few chapters, however, things do become easier to follow, although a bit of re-reading may be involved for some readers.

Unusually for a book in this genre, the key point of view character is a male, with the other supporting points of views comprising those of two women who play integral role in his life: the estranged mother of his child, and a bereft woman who has recently lost her child and with whom he strikes up a friendship.

Travis, the protagonist, is a young father who has always seen love and passion as all that’s needed to get by: despite the ups and downs of his life, he sticks fiercely to the belief that if he wants it badly enough, it will happen. He has dreams of one day becoming a marine biologist even though his working-class background and limited income means that university is a pipedream. He’s also convinced that he is capable of acting as the sole carer for his young daughter. But when Travis is let go from his job and a house fire leaves him homeless, he begins to see how important it can be to live for the moment and not just the future. Having nowhere to live and no income means that Travis’s problems are real and immediate, and that he must do whatever it takes to get back on track so that he can protect his daughter. But finding full-time employment with a young daughter in tow is no easy matter, and Travis finds himself digging himself deeper and deeper into poverty. Until he’s offered a one-off job that can help him break the cycle–if he doesn’t get caught by the police.

Unwittingly complicit in Travis’s scheme is Erin, a grieving mother who is mourning the death of her only child and who has recently left her husband after feeling alienated by what she feels is his lack of caring. Though her husband is grieving in his own way, Erin is unable to recognise the validity of his grief, pushing him away for what she sees as moving on–something she fears doing herself. But Erin’s own healing process begins when she meets Travis and his young daughter Bella in a cafe, and the trio become unlikely friends. Erin is surprised that she is able to be in Bella’s presence without the overwhelming grief that usually accompanies being with a child, and slowly grows closer to the young girl. But this friendship is tested when desperate Travis involves Erin in a plan that could harm them all.

The final point of view character is Robin, the mother of Travis’s daughter. Born with a congenital heart defect, it’s a miracle that Robin is alive today: the fact that she is is down to a heart donor. When Robin found out that she was pregnant, she was a seriously ill teen, and scarcely made it through the pregnancy alive. Fearful that she would not live to be able to support her child, she opted to give up her daughter at birth, and has kept her daughter’s existence a secret ever since. Now engaged to a well-to-do politician, Robin’s life seems to be on the up and up: until she learns that Travis and her daughter are in trouble.

Parental responsibility echoes throughout the novel, with each of the characters reflecting not only on their worth as a parent, but also on the impact of their own, and others’ parents. Robin’s father, for example, saw Travis as too lowly for his daughter, and thus tried to put a stop to their relationship. A similar situation occurs when Robin’s teenage future sister-in-law becomes pregnant to a working-class boy and her new family attempts to break up the relationship. There’s Robin, of course, who feels tremendous guilt over choosing her survival over being a mother, and over not being well enough to be a true mother in the first place. There’s Erin, who’s constantly at war with herself over whether she’s grieving properly or to the right extent, and who can’t help but assess her and her husband’s actions on the fateful day her daughter died. And of course there’s Travis, whose intentions are for the most pure–if just a tad marred by a sense of pride–but whose actions are less so. But the question throughout the book is whether any parent put in any of these situations would do the same thing.

The Good Father is a moving read, and the “what if” that forms its premise is striking and intelligent. After a convoluted start the book begins to bloom into something like a family saga, and moves along easily and steadily until the last quarter of the book or so, when a very neat, very tidy resolution begins to loom. I had a number of problems with the way things began to turn out: I found the suspense element difficult to stomach (also, “baby formula” trafficking, Travis? I know you’re an innocent, but really.), and the subsequent chapters with Robin learning more about her fiance than she wanted to know, as well as what follows after her reunion with Travis, felt contrived to me, and I would have liked to have seen some more complexity here, particularly given that I think this genre demands a different, more congruous ending. I did, however, enjoy the resolution of Erin’s plot arc, which although a little saccharine, fit well with her character. There were also a few other oddities that struck me throughout the book, such as why Travis, despite his pride, didn’t just go to someone for help, and why he left Bella with Erin the way he did rather than, oh, simply asking her to babysit: the “pride” notion overrides the desire to protect his child here, and just doesn’t quite ring true to me. I also found that some of the parallels and echoes felt a little forced and coincidental, and in part these were to blame for the ultra-tidy ending.

In sum, Chamberlain is in fine form when it comes to her characters, who are as always admirably well-rounded and believable, and I appreciated the use of a male point of view character, which is unusual for this genre. Still, I can’t help but feel that plot-wise this one could have done with a little less drama and a little less coincidence: it’s the themes and the characters that make this book so riveting, not so much the plot.
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