Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

Happy Spring! I say this with tongue firmly in cheek. What a mess it is in Maine! Way, way, too early for beach reading, so here's a wonderful tome to get you through to warm weather

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The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co, 2013

A little Salinger, a little Updike. A hefty dose of Dickens. But mostly, Donna Tartt—this is the only book of hers I've read (she's written three novels, one a decade) and she's high in my pantheon now.

At just under 800 pages, THE GOLDFINCH is a time commitment. But there's no sense of drudgery, partly because this is a miraculous marriage of four books tied together with common threads—get tired of one phase of our hero's life, and presto! there's another.

The major cohesive thread is “The Goldfinch,” the small 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius that in real life just visited the Frick Collection in New York from its home in The Hague. The painting—of a bird chained to a perch against a blank wall—is deceptively simple but luminous in color and brush-strokes, much like this book.

Our narrator, thirteen-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker, meets the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he visits with his vibrant, beautiful, and much-loved single mother on a disastrously coincidental day. Theo has misbehaved and been suspended from school. On an uncomfortable journey uptown with his mother to discuss his case with school officials, the two are driven by the rain into the Met and decide to take a gander at a visiting exhibit of northern European art.

From that series of coincidences comes the tragedy that will run Theo's life: The Deckers part company
"The Goldfinch" (Carel Fabritius, 1654)
briefly, and at that exact moment a terrorist's bomb goes off. His mother is killed. Theo comes to in a wrecked gallery and comforts a dying old man, who makes him take “The Goldfinch” off the wall (it's only 13.25 x 9 inches) and insists on giving him an ornate gold ring.

Theo ends up wandering home with both ring and painting. From the old man's half-demented ramblings, he figures out months later where to return the ring, another life-changing event. But he does not return the painting—it becomes his only source of contact with his life Before. Eventually, as his post-bomb befuddlement fades, he begins to realize that the world will consider him an art thief—the more so the longer he puts off telling anyone about the little painting.

Over the next fourteen years, “The Goldfinch”--hidden in increasingly complex circumstances--becomes Theo's joy and his solace, but also his burden and the subject of deep guilt. In other words, it's family.

Immediately after the bombing, Theo fetches up on Park Avenue with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend. It's here that Tartt offers us a slow, exquisite depiction of extreme grief, from the harrowing early moments ( “I said yes and no when I was spoken to, and spent a lot of time staring at the carpet so people wouldn't see I was crying”) to the later stages when everything's supposed to be back to normal but Just Simply Isn't.

The Park Avenue phase of Theo's story ends when his father, a drunk with a gambling problem (or vice versa), uproots him to a dusty, eerily deserted Las Vegas suburb. This is the second and, to me, the most depressing section of the book, Oliver Twist meets Holden Caulfield. Appearing in the role of Artful Dodger, however, is one of the book's funniest and most compelling characters: Boris, a Russian teen who has lived all over the world and created his own set of ethics in the process. His father, a mining engineer, disappears for weeks only to return in a drunken rage and beat his son. Theo's father isn't much better, so the two embark on a drug-fueled shadow existence, wandering from empty house to empty house, utterly reliant on one another.

Theo eventually makes it back to New York for his Dickens-and-Salinger-meet-Updike phase. Still possessing and possessed by “The Goldfinch,” he drifts into furniture fraud, at risk of betraying the mentor he acquired years before when he returned the dying old man's gold ring. In love with the old man's granddaughter, also a survivor of the bombing, he nevertheless becomes engaged to the brittle socialite daughter of the Park Avenue Barbours, thus subjected to Society at its most vapid.

Phase four features the return of Boris, who pulls Theo into a Grisham-esque thriller—a sometimes comic, sometimes nail-biting page-turner, fun but less enthralling to me than the more character-driven segments of the book.

I'm making this book sound like a real mess, aren't I? Trust me, it's not. Although a tad wordy in places, the writing is spectacular. The characters are round and real and absorbing, and there's an undercurrent of magical realism as coincidences and extraordinary insights first destroy lives and then save them. Your time will be well invested.

(Dear FCC: I gave this book to my beloved for Christmas, and when he'd finished he would not rest until I got started on it. Then he kept hovering and asking “Where are you? What's happening now?” Annoying yet endearing, much like this postscript.)