Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Boris--mildly--cleared his throat and lifted his water glass. "Sorry, may I say something?"

"Is it speechmaking time?  Were we meant to prepare toasts?"

"I thank you all for your company.  And I wish us all health, and happiness, and that we all shall live until the next Christmas."

In the surprised silence that followed, a champagne cork popped in the kitchen, a burst of laughter.  It was just past midnight: two minutes into Christmas Day.  Then my father leaned back in his chair and laughed.  "Merry Christmas!" he roared, producing from his pocket a jewelry box which he slid over to Xandra, and two stacks of twenties (Five hundred dollars! Each!) which he tossed across the table to Boris and me.  And though in the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, words like day and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn't seem quite the doomed or fatal idea.

Theo Decker is in an art museum when a bomb, placed by terrorists, blows up.  In the confusion immediately following, and at the behest of a dying old man, Theo grabs a painting, the Goldfinch (pictured below).  He takes it home, hides it, and then later learns that his mother died in the blast.

After his mother dies, Theo has to deal with child services while they try to figure out what to do with him.  Not wanting to admit that he took this painting (for fear that he would get into trouble), Theo tells no one.  Of course, the longer he does not tell anyone, the more difficult it is for him to come clean. The painting begins to represent Theo's failure to confront and overcome the tragedy of his mother's death.

Although the plot points are not exactly surprise-turns, I nonetheless don't want to spoil anything because much of the dramatic tension of the novel is witnessing Theo's life progressively spiral out of control.  Instead, I'll focus on two points about Tartt's writing that deserve extra attention.

I was pleased to see that this
is an actual painting.
First, Tartt is excellent at writing a character's experience in a way that the character is unaware of something that's going on while the reader is aware.  That's to say, much of this novel revolves around the devastation Theo feels because of his mother's death--however, Theo only rarely narrates his thoughts on his mother's death.  Usually he is narrating whatever is happening, with the reader to interpret how his mother's death is affecting his choices.  This applies too, with other characters in the novel--Theo may be too young, too in self-denial, or too naive to know what other characters are doing, but the reader isn't.

Thus, Brittany told me she heard a podcast where they criticized this book because it's really "young adult" literature.  And, it's true: this is a coming of age novel about a young boy growing up.  However, the "young adult" label is inappropriate here because I think most young adults would fail to understand much of the backstory that Tartt presents.

Second, this novel reminded me of her first novel (and the only other novel of hers that I've read, The Secret History, a novel I adore).  In both, the protagonists lack the self-confidence to assert/affirm their own lives; rather, they need to fall in with other, more assertive characters.  This following of others leads to much of the dramatic tension.  I'm not sure why this speaks to me, but in both novels I sympathized with the protagonists while disagreeing with many of their life choices.  I make this point because often I hate reading novels with bad-life-choices-protagonists.  This novel (and The Secret History) are exceptions to this rule; the quality of Tartt's writing deserves the credit for this.

I can't speak for most Pulitzers, but this book certainly deserved special recognition: it is one of the finest novels I've read in years.  Highly recommended.