Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Source of book: I own this.

Some friends of ours invited my wife and me to join their book club, appropriately entitled the Literary Lush Book Club. Because food and adult beverages are also important to the experience. I previously read (but was unable to attend for) The Master and Margarita, and finally participated in the meeting for The Island of Dr. Moreau. While my music and camping schedule interfere with perfect attendance, I do hope to at least read most of the books this year. In general, they tend to pick books that I would not necessarily have read on my own. The Goldfinch is a good example of that.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014. Honestly, I have always thought of the Pulitzer as something for journalism and non-fiction, and, while those categories are important, there are also prizes for fiction, poetry, drama, and music.

The basic setup of the book is this: 13 year old Theo is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother among others. A dying old man hands him a ring, and points to a small painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, which Theo puts in his backpack before finding his way out of the building through the rubble. From there, Theo lives briefly with a friend’s family, before his deadbeat dad and new girlfriend whisk him away to Vegas, where is is basically left to his own devices - and those of his new friend Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant who has traveled the world. The two boys get high and into trouble, unsurprisingly. Later, Theo’s dad gets drunk and dies in a car accident, and Theo finds his way back to New York, where he is raised by the business partner of the old man who gave him the ring. I’ll stop there, because there are plenty of crazy plot twists and developments that I would hate to give away.

 The Goldfinch by Frabritius. A pupil of Rembrandt, Fabritius was killed in the Explosion of Delft, when a gunpowder magazine blew, destroying most of the city - and most of Fabritius' paintings as well. A sad loss of artist and art.

In some ways, the book is a coming-of-age story with Theo as the protagonist. But in others, it is a tale of the painting itself. When the book ends, there are a number of questions involving Theo which are left unresolved, while the painting experiences a full resolution.

I would also describe the book as a bit of a modern day Dickens story, in the vein of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. In fact, the first half of the book is chock full of “easter eggs” that Dickens fans such as myself can discover. My wife pointed out the parallels between Pippa and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, although Pippa might also be compared to Emily in David Copperfield. There are also a number of references to Harry Potter, leading my wife to note that it looks like there is a generational divide there: from Gen Y onward, Potter will be similar to Shakespeare or Greek Mythology in that it will be a constant source of literary references that the reader will be expected to know. Which means I really need to read the Harry Potter books, apparently.

(I was 20 when the first Harry Potter book came out, so I was too old to read them at the intended age. By the time my kids were old enough, my wife read the books to them, so I just never ended up reading them. That is in addition to the fact that they were considered evil by the Fundie subculture my family was in, so I might have missed them back then. Even now, I think my kids’ love for the books freaks my mom out. Sigh.)

I do have to mention one more allusion which I thought was a nice touch. In order to return the ring, Theo has to find a certain address, and ring a green doorbell. I cannot but conclude that Tartt has given a nod to O Henry, and his delightful tale of adventure and coincidence, “The Green Door,” where a random advertisement leads to unexpected happenings. (That story is one of my favorites by O Henry - and I have read them all.)

Donna Tartt does write well, with many singularly beautiful and evocative descriptions. The book is quite long (962 pages in the paperback edition), but not long in the same way as, say, Tolstoy or Trollope. It does get a bit bogged down occasionally, particularly in the last 100 pages where it waxes philosophical. However, much of it flies by quickly, and few if any details are wasted. In fact, when I reached the end, I was surprised how many early details turned out to be important for either the plot or the character development. Tartt took her time with this book, and as a result, the book feels tightly written.

One of the choices that was interesting was the way that Tartt kept circling back to certain ideas and topics, which I believe to be tied to Theo’s PTSD and resulting obsession with his trauma. He keeps returning to the same thoughts, even as he wishes to move on, and thus Tartt brings us along with him in his spiraling inner life.

I think Tartt was really perceptive in her description of the various professionals tasked with making sure Theo is okay after the bombing. The vast majority of the adults seem rather clueless, and unfortunately, this is all too realistic. (One area I work in is in the Juvenile court system, on cases where children are removed from the custody of their parents due to abuse or neglect. There are lots of well meaning people, but all too often, the things done resemble, as Theo puts it, reading from the “checklist of Things to Say to Troubled Kids.”) What Theo needs more than anything (and that he gets from Hobie) is someone to talk normally with him, and just be a friend. I understand the need (and benefit) of professional help, and so on, but I think this is often an overlooked and underprovided need.

Looking back on my notes, I also jotted down an exchange between Boris (the Artful Dodger of the book) and Theo regarding Boris’ dad.

“He feels bad for leaving me so much alone. He knows is a holiday coming up, and he asked if I could stay at your house.”
“Well, you do all the time anyway.”
“He knows that. That’s why he thanked you. But - I hope you don’t mind - I gave him your wrong address.”
Because - I think maybe you don’t want him rolling up drunk at your house in the middle of the night.” 

Boris’ dad is just one of the picaresque underworldish characters that come into this book. There is a funny line about Horst, the stolen artwork dealer, who keeps chickens in his posh house in Miami - to shoot at. As Boris queries, “What kind of crazy thing is this for these people to keep chickens in Miami?” We might all ask that question.

Another line that made me smile was the term that Theo uses for his fiance Kitsey’s godmother, who swoops in to take over their wedding plans. “Wedding Obergruppenf├╝hrer.” Yep, that was an official Nazi rank in the SS. And yes, it applies to certain sorts I am rather familiar with from my days playing weddings in a string quartet. (I still do occasionally, but less since having kids.)

There is also a fun scene in Amsterdam - although it could have taken place anywhere, honestly. Those of us who live in California certainly are aware of the little hole-in-the-wall hipster health food restaurant. One is spoofed here - although they really tend to self-parody.

“Food is so awful,” said Boris. “Sprouts and some hard old wheat toast. You would think hot girls go there, but is just old grey-haired women and fat.”

One final line caught my eye. Theo and Boris are having a bit of a philosophical discussion near the end, about the role of fate and/or providence in our lives, and the way seemingly bad things can have unexpected and unintended consequences, some of which are positive.

Theo counters Boris’ optimistic view:

“I believe this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence.’”
“Yes - but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?”

I’m kind of with Boris on this one.

The Goldfinch is an interesting book. It’s a compelling read, with an interesting story and good writing. It is a bit sordid in a way, with a lot of drug use, some language and violence, but an intentional minimum of sex. Theo pushes away intimacy of all kinds as part of his damaged psyche, and this is part of how the sexuality works. Things are always mentioned obliquely, whether it is his series of non-serious girlfriends as an adult, or what probably took place with Boris when they were teens. Like his trauma, Theo doesn’t want to go there or admit what he feels. But that is part of the point of this book. Theo is damaged, but you still root for him. He makes horrible decisions, but you still want it to come out okay. He will never be who you hope he could be, but he is still human and interesting.

I was not aware of this book before it was nominated as an option for our club, but I am glad I read it. It is definitely worth reading. As with many literary novels, be sure to stay with it for a while, as the slower first pages are there to set the stage. As one of our members memorably put it, he waits to decide if he is going to finish a book until he can see that it is transitioning from the first act to the second. By that point, one knows enough to evaluate whether the book will be worth finishing. I tend to agree with that. (With the caveat that a few “books” are so dreadfully written that you can discard them within a few pages just because of authorial incompetence. But most of those aren’t the sort I would be interested in in the first place.) Once it gets going, The Goldfinch is a combination of thoughtful literary fiction, and fast-paced adventure. Enjoy the action, but savor the lovely and evocative writing, and the thoughtful deeper ideas.

We discussed a lot more than this at book club, but that is a bit beyond the scope of this review. While long, this book did spark a very interesting series of discussions, and it was fun to see what everyone brought to the table.

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