Thursday, April 29, 2021

Book 282: The Goldfinch


"The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any movement blow me apart."

Dates read: December 7-17, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

When I was little, my mom took me (and later, my sister) often to the Detroit Institute of Arts. When I was really young, we lived in the city, so it wasn't a long drive. But even when we moved out to the suburbs, we went fairly frequently. It's an amazing museum, commensurate with the sophistication of Detroit at the time it was established, and I've been lucky enough to see some truly wonderful art there, but the first painting I remember loving isn't one of the big name pieces (though it is one of the most popular). It's called "The Nut Gatherers", by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and shows two little girls in a forest clearing. It's hard to put my finger on what I've always found so compelling about it, but it's my first memory of art that made me feel something.

While not every artwork is for everyone, great art can have a powerful effect on the viewer. The title work of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is a small painting by Carel Fabritius, showing the namesake bird perched on a feeder to which it is chained. Theo Decker first sees it on what is the worst day of his life. In trouble for getting into some adolescent mischief, he and his mother have been summoned to the principal's office. With time to kill before their meeting, they stop at the MoMA to see an exhibition that includes the title artwork. Theo likes the paintings, but is mostly busy paying attention to a lovely red-haired girl about his age, accompanied by a much older man. He's just spotted her again by the gift shop when his mother goes back to take one last look at the art...and then the bomb goes off. When Theo comes to, the old man he'd seen with the pretty redhead directs him to take The Goldfinch off the wall and keep it, and then dies.

Theo returns home, and when he learns of his mother's death, he's taken in by the upper-crust family of a school friend. He also forges a connection with Hobie, the business partner of the old man, who turns out to have been the great-uncle of Pippa, the red-headed girl he finally actually meets. Of course once Theo is finding some stability and solace, his father (who'd left the family and New York quite a while before) suddenly reappears, taking Theo back with him to his new home in Las Vegas. While there, the traumatized Theo meets fellow damaged teen Boris, who introduces him to drugs and alcohol. After another tragedy strikes, Theo takes back off to New York, going to Hobie for support, and eventually growing up to become his new partner in the antique shop he runs. But when a mysterious customer hints that he knows what happened to the long-missing painting, Theo finds himself drawn into a criminal underworld to try to extricate himself from his problem.

Tartt's The Secret History is an all-time favorite of mine. She's an assured and extremely talented writer, which is a good thing because this is a wildly ambitious novel. And she mostly pulls it off! There's a LOT going on here, but Tartt keeps her plot moving while she develops Theo, Boris, and Hobie into rich, deep characters. The references to classic literature, Great Expectations and Crime & Punishment particularly, are heady comparisons to invite but they feel earned, Tartt's writing quality really holds up to the canon. I was engrossed in the story she was telling me pretty much the whole time. And it's not a big thing, but as a transplant to Nevada myself (albeit the northern end), I thought she captured the feeling of the desert outskirts of Las Vegas beautifully, especially the ridiculous space of it when compared to a city as tightly compacted as New York. And I loved the way she wrote about Popper!

As good as it is, there are definitely things that don't quite work here. I thought the main female characters (Pippa and Kitsey) were mostly underwritten and sometimes felt contrived. Despite the occasional references to cell phones/modern technology, the book felt old-fashioned in a way that made those references feel shoehorned and anachronistic. It felt like the two "halves" of the book (Theo's childhood and then adulthood) were unbalanced...I thought some of the former could probably have been edited down to let the latter breathe a little more. And while Theo's issues with drugs were written in a way that made them very understandable, I've never found reading about people taking substances all that interesting and the book's continued engagement with it sometimes lost my attention. But all in all, these are fairly minor quibbles. The book is a very very good one, and I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of a doorstoper!

One year ago, I was reading: Foundation

Two years ago, I was reading: Jackaby

Three years ago, I was reading: The Book of Unknown Americans

Four years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Five years ago, I was reading: The President's Club

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