Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt
 Little, Brown     2013
771 pages     Fiction

All week I have been compulsively reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, gazing out at the sea while reading a torturous and tortured story. The incongruity of the scene has been emotionally draining for me. I wanted to be on vacation but I couldn’t stop reading. At the same time, I was extremely grateful that I could devote so much time to the book. If I had been home, I would have resented the intrusions that would have kept me from delving in so completely. 

The Goldfinch starts out with a bang—literally. Theo Decker and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one weekday morning before going to Theo’s school, where he is a 13-year-old middle school student, in trouble with the dean for smoking and/or stealing. Theo is a very bright son of a very bright mother (dad having left the year before). While Theo is looking at the Dutch Masters, mom wanders into another room. There is a huge bomb explosion and when Theo becomes conscious again, an old man he had earlier noticed, is dying at his feet. He gives Theo a ring and asks him to deliver it to an address, and he tells Theo to save the small painting of the Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius and then he dies. Theo grabs the painting, stuffs it in his backpack and makes his way out of the museum. He can’t find his mother anywhere, so he goes home to wait for her. She never arrives; she has been killed in the explosion.

At that point, everything goes downhill for the suddenly orphaned boy. He spends a school term with the Upper East Side family of a school friend while authorities look for his father. The family gives Theo some stability and the mother in the family helps Theo deal with his loss. During this year, another important set-up occurs when Theo returns the dead man’s ring to the address he has remembered. There he meets the girl, Pippa, who had been in the museum with the old man, and her guardian, Hobie, an antique dealer and restorer. Pippa becomes the love of Theo’s life, and Hobie, dear Hobie, becomes his lifelong friend and mentor.

In the spring, Theo’s ne’er-do-well father and his girlfriend come to claim Theo, and they take him to live in suburban Las Vegas, where he spends his high school years. Boris, a Ukrainian student who has also lost his mother, teams up with Theo to carouse their way through high school. All these characters appear and reappear throughout the novel over a period of about 15 years, and Boris continues to influence Theo throughout the rest of the novel. 

After the breathtaking beginning, there is a meandering middle section in which Theo continues to hide the painting, which causes him no end of anxiety. When his alcoholic father is killed in an automobile accident, Theo returns to New York to live with Hobie and he learns all about the antique business. The middle section of the book is important, however long it is, because it teaches the reader patience. One reviewer says of Tartt: “. . .she takes fully grown, already passionate readers and reminds them of the particularly deep pleasures that a long, winding novel can hold. In the short-form era in which we live, the Internet has supposedly whittled our attention-spans down to the size of hotel soap, and it's good to be reminded that sometimes more is definitely more.” 

The writing is so marvelous that you read on for hundreds of pages; you just can’t get enough of it. Then, just as you think you don’t want any more glorious writing—you want some action—you lose your breath again as the plot picks up and moves to Amsterdam, and then goes full speed ahead to a dramatic climax in which the stolen painting plays a pivotal role.

I am in awe of Donna Tartt. This is the first book of Tartt's that I have read. Actually there have only been two others. The Goldfinch took ten years to write. All the way through I marveled at her skill, but the skill doesn’t overwhelm the character development or the plot. There are elements of Dickens, Catcher in the Rye and Empire of the Sun. One reviewer felt that the early sections reminded her of the Harry Potter series. Tartt seems to really understand teenage boys. Boris is incredibly charismatic and Theo remains an appealing character throughout the story. My favorite character is Hobie, the bachelor antique dealer who takes Theo in when he is at his lowest point and becomes the parental figure and mentor that Theo desperately needs. The plot is so well developed that there are very few unbelievable moments. If I have any complaints about plot, is that sometimes the reader wishes that it would move a little bit faster.

There is so much loss in The Goldfinch that I have pondered Theo’s fate almost as much as he does. He makes so many bad choices, but he is so appealing that you keep wanting him to shape up and “get his shit together.” And when, in the end, he has an epiphany and finds purpose for his life, you are so proud of the decisions that move his life forward. The end of the book is quite philosophical. I wanted to copy whole passages; they were so heartfelt. He says, “A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

When I finished the book this afternoon, I breathed heavily and began to cry—filled with emotion and exhaustion. I was done; yet, I immediately longed for more. Theo is a character that will stay with me for a long time. The Goldfinch will stay with me even longer. The NPR reviewer summed it up thus: “While The Goldfinch delves seriously and studiously into themes of art, beauty, loss and freedom, I mostly loved it because it kept me wishing I could stay in its fully-imagined world a little longer. Donna Tartt was right to take her time with this book. Readers will want to take their time with it, too.”

I’m going to read an amusing murder mystery next; I don’t think I can stand to read any more great literature for a while. I need time to recover.

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