Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Date of Publication: October 22, 2013
Pages: 784

     The Goldfinch is many things.  First. it is a remarkable character study.  The main character, Theo Decker, suffers an unspeakable tragedy.  At age 14 he loses his mother in a terrorist attack.  He spends the rest of the book reeling through abandonment issues, survivor's guilt and self-loathing.  There is a second main character.  Boris is a Ukranian whose mother has also died and whom Theo meets in school in Las Vegas.  They become inseparable.  There is also a huge cast of well drawn supporting characters.  Second, it is a captivating sociological examination of growing up in a modern world: latch-key teens, readily available alcohol and drugs, materialism and celebrity culture.  Third, it is a philosophical treatise on the role of fate and chance in our lives and asks the question: How much control do we  really have over what happens to us in our lifetime?  Finally, all 784 pages of this book are a primer on exactly what challenging and spell binding creative writing should be.  Every detail of setting creates the atmosphere necessary for the story, the dialogue is crystalline and pitch perfect and the story, although lengthy, is perfectly rendered.  There is not one word, phrase or sentence which should have been edited out.  As an example of this author's writing skill, here's Theo describing arriving in Las Vegas:

 "My new room felt so bare and lonely that, after I unpacked my bags, I left the sliding door of the closet open so I could see my clothes hanging inside.  From downstairs, I could still hear Dad shouting about the carpet."

     This book has three sections which occur in two main locations.  The book starts with Theo and his mother in New York.  After the bomb blast Theo lives for a few months with an affluent family on Fifth Avenue.  His heretofore estranged father reappears and Theo moves to Las Vegas with him and his live-in girlfriend.  It is in Las Vegas where Theo meets Boris, who is just as out of place in Vegas as Theo.  Their shared strangeness unites them in a catastrophic  friendship.  The story concludes with the young adult Theo back in New York.  The final scenes occur in Amsterdam.  Although there are multiple settings, The Goldfinch is a total celebration of all things New York:  ethnic restaurants,  the art and theater scene, funky specialty shops, the great melting pot of different peoples and the general chaos that is life in "The City."  Las Vegas is included to show the exact opposite of New York: overbuilt and barely inhabited subdivisions on the outskirts of the dessert, false glamour, failed promises and total shallowness.

     The writing here is truly marvelous.  The author packs a ton of detail into this story, although at times you feel that there is too much.  You come to realize though, that each detail adds a layer of complexity to this already very complex tale and each detail is necessary to comprehend the sum of what the author is trying to do.  The author is also extremely clever.  There is one particular scene late in the book where Theo is having coffee with a young lady in a Greenwich Village coffee shop.  Theo notes that Bob Dylan is playing on the music system in the background.  A few pages later Theo observes a young couple walking arm in arm down an otherwise abandoned Village street.  I almost fell off of the stationary bike at the Y when I realized the author had described the cover art of Dylan's legendary album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"!
     The one constant in this otherwise constantly morphing story is a small 16th Century masterpiece painting called "The Goldfinch."  Theo's mother had been mesmerized by a print of this as a youth.  An exhibit featuring the actual painting prompted the ill-fated visit to the art museum which culminated in her death.  Theo walks out of the chaos of the museum bombing with the small painting in hand and keeps it in hiding throughout the story.  The painting is at once a talisman which connects Theo to his Mom, an object of beauty which Theo adores and a pervading source of angst for Theo.  What happens to him if he is caught with the purloined painting?  He becomes obsessed both with the painting as well as the need to keep his possession of it secret.

     Late in the story Theo is discussing antiques and collectibles with Hobie, an aging artisan who restores furniture and becomes a surrogate father for Theo after he returns from Las Vegas.  Hobie says:  "Caring too much for objects can destroy you.  Only - if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it?  And isn't the whole point of things - beautiful things - that they connect you to some larger beauty?  Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?"  Theo considers this and later reflects: "I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality.  And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful."

     The real ambition of The Goldfinch is it's attempt to define what role fate and chance have in our lives.  How much of what we wind up doing and becoming is really under our control and how much of it is thrust upon us by circumstance and just plain luck (good and bad)?  The final chapters of the book have Theo reunited with Boris.  Boris' life has taken some radical turns, most of which are on the wrong side of the law.  Theo and Boris reflect on their tumultuous time together in Vegas and their subsequent divergent life paths.  Boris says this to Theo: "Maybe sometimes - the wrong way is the right way?  You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?  Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?"  More Boris: "What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God?  What if the pattern is pre-set?  No no - hang on - this is a question worth struggling with.  What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?  What if, for some of us, we can't get there any other way?"  This is not the "stuff" of an average novel.

     This book took me a very, very long time to read.  This, however, is not a criticism.  The reason it took me so long to read is that I found myself re-reading paragraphs, pages and whole sections over and over again because I couldn't believe how well written they were.  The first two hundred pages or so, in fact, are probably the best description of a terrorist attack I have read to date.  The whole event (the melancholy morning leading to the ill-fated trip to art gallery, the visit to the gallery itself and the bomb and its aftermath) is told by Theo in a dream-like, slow motion, detail packed way which is totally mesmerizing.  You feel like you are experiencing the attack and its aftermath yourself. 

   Take the time to experience The Goldfinch.  It is worth it.

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