Friday, June 19, 2015

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have been trying to read The Goldfinch since Randy read it in August of last year, but the novel is a steep 771 pages which was too long to try to squeeze in while my school year was beginning. My school made it a summer reading option for one of my grade levels, so as this year finished up I decided to unwrap it. I did so without having read Randy's review, but I also remembered that around that time last year we were really focused on the question: what makes a great novel? My answer included the idea that "over and over a lifetime, a person can read it and get something different from it" which means I can't squarely put The Goldfinch in the Great Novel category, but I do look forward to reading it in a decade or so and seeing if it stands up to my test. I think it will and hope it does. 

(Semi-spoiler alert? I am only giving away what happens in the first 50 pages, which is less than 1% of this tome). 

The novel opens with a character in an Amsterdam hotel room indicating that his life has somehow gone awry after the death of his mother: "though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life. Her death the dividing mark: Before and After." Right here at the beginning, I've already become a little smitten with Ms. Tartt and her ability to take a character in a wholly unique scenario but express that characters feelings in a way that they are universal for the reader - we all have Before and Afters in our lives, even if the dividing line isn't the death of a parent. It then becomes apparent that the Amsterdam hotel is the start of a frame story, and we are taken to the day his mother dies. 

Theo, a teenager in New York, killing time with his mom before his expulsion hearing. They are in a museum so his mother, the art historian, can see The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.

In Gallery 23 are people who will be connected together forever. Theo - the troubled teen - and Pippa - the redheaded violin virtuoso. Pippa's initial reaction to the painting is to ask concernedly, "It has to live its whole life like that?" (chained to the little bar) while Theo, who spends a lot of time with this painting, later remarks that "Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch's ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place." Their differing reactions probably say a lot about how these two young adults react to very similar circumstances - they are both in the building when it is bombed by terrorists and they both lose the person who loves them the most in the world.

The book follows Theo out of that gallery with the Goldfinch painting which he takes in shock as directed by a dying gentleman. At first he is too frantic about his mother to really realize what he has done, but eventually he becomes too scared to reveal his actions since his life is already in turmoil with social services and other issues. He reconnects with Pippa throughout his life, and she seems to have acknowledged the sadness and find some way to have a life while Theo doesn't even realize how he is a goldfinch tied to the painting the way the goldfinch is tied to the wall.

Probably the most skillful thing about the novel is the way Tartt is able to create a character who is compelling for almost 800 pages, especially because he's not very likable. He's emotionally distant from those around him, makes really bad life decisions, does some outright criminal things - and yet, I wanted to see what happened to him. I didn't want him to have a happy ending - he doesn't really deserve that, but I also didn't want him to have a tragic ending - he doesn't really deserve that either, and Tartt masterfully gives a satisfying ending that is not too perfectly tied up or justified.

The novel is also filled with characters who are absolutely loveable - Boris and Hobie and Pippa and Popper - so that may be what makes the text so compelling. As an audience, it's much easier to relate to Hobie, the goodhearted man who tries to do right by Theo, because we like to think of ourselves as goodhearted people who would try to do the right thing, even for a person who is sort of a screw up. 

The writing is top notch, of course, with characters throwing out these gorgeous lines such as: "People die, sure," my mother was saying. "But it's so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness."

It's also funny. I love my puppies to distraction, so when a character is reunited with the dog Popper, I adored how the characters interacted with Popper like he was a human. "Drive him around in back seat, wherever he wants to go...I will take him to the deli! For a bacon egg and cheese...we had a very nice nap together, the two of us...we ate a bacon sandwich." 

 My only complaint is that the frame that opens and ends the novel is never really explained. By the end Theo is directly addressing the reader and the writing process ("I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader"), but there is no explanation of why he is writing to a non-existent reader. I would have been fine with it existing as Theo's journals, but he does too many drugs to have written these cohesive journal entries. I would have been fine with it existing as an explanation or letter to a named reader, but he specifies that the reader is non-existent. It is a very very small complaint though, and does not stop the book from being very thoroughly recommended. 

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