Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (in which I am long-winded)

I wasn't in a hurry to read this book. 
It's silly, really; I loved Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and everyone's been raving about this book since it came out. I guess the description just left me cold. I mean, boy loses his mother, boy feels alienated, boy has some weird connection to a painting that leads him into criminal society somehow....(I'm paraphrasing from the book jacket here, if it wasn't obvious). It just didn't sound like something I needed to run out and read immediately. But then I got not one but two copies for Christmas, so I figured what the hell. 
This is why I should never read dust jackets. This one was definitely a fail. Because this book? This book, guys. It's nothing like the dry coming-of-age novel that stupid blurb would like us to believe it to be. Stupid blurbs, with their nefarious, blurb-y plots!
In fact, this book is both gorgeously written and brilliantly plotted, and populated with some of the most memorable characters I've ever read. I finished the novel over a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I kind of want to live in this book.
I'll back up. I know I usually skip the plot summaries, but I just want to see if I can right some of that terrible blurb's wrongs. Mild spoilers ahead. 

So. The Goldfinch follows Theo Decker as he grows up, beginning with the day his mother dies. The way it happens is wayyy more shocking and horrible than the "accident" mentioned on the dust jacket--Theo's mom is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She and Theo are separated just before it happens, so he survives, but he winds up...well...kind of sort of taking home a small painting called The Goldfinch from the museum.  There are reasons (sort of), but by the time the shock has worn off a bit and he realizes what he has, he's afraid to give the painting back. So we spend a lot of the book with this underlying tension about it as Theo pushes it to the back of his mind ( and gets on with the business of growing up. Of course, he does eventually have to deal with his whole accidental art smuggling thing, and it's as satisfying a conclusion as you could want. 
Gah, okay, now that we're done with the whole awkward plot summary portion of our program, we can really talk about things. Like what a pleasure it is to read a book with the kinds of descriptions that just...transport the reader. This book is almost 800 pages, and there's a lot of description in there, and it never dragged for me. I meant it when I said I want to live in this book. Donna Tartt manages this brilliant depth in her descriptions so that each new place Theo finds himself in reveals as much about the people inhabiting it as the things they say.
And the people are just as amazing. This book has two of my favorite supporting characters of all time--Hobie and Boris. On the surface, they provide two wildly different things for Theo. Hobie is the one adult he can count on after his mother dies. Hobie's a constant. And Boris is Theo's best friend, a fast-talking, caper-executing dude who always makes the best of the shitty hands life keeps dealing him. (For Boris, "making the best of it" often includes way too much vodka and the occasional bout of crime, but he stays in remarkably good humor through it all.) 
I could write thousands of words about the characters (I did, actually; they're just hanging out in my outtakes folder. It's much better for you to discover the characters for yourselves, hint hint), but I'll show some restraint. I would like to talk about an interesting dynamic, though. You may have noticed the characters I've mentioned so far have been of the dudely persuasion. It's not that there aren't women in The Goldfinch. And the women in the book are anything but disposable. It's just that there's always a distance between them and Theo--usually a distance he's trying to fight.
There's his mother, of course. Her death is a huge loss that Theo understandably never really gets over. Then there's Pippa, a girl Theo's age who was injured in the same attack that killed his mother. Theo and Pippa are forever connected by their shared trauma, but they never have the relationship Theo hopes for. This relationship bordered on disturbing for me a few times because I'm not a huge fan of male characters reading a lot into their every interaction with a female character who's made it clear she's not interested in him romantically. There are a few moments where Theo does take his infatuation too far, but thankfully he's called out on it by Hobie or by Pippa herself. Then there's Mrs. Barbour, the closest thing Theo's got to a mother figure directly following his mother's death, and later his fiancee...he eventually finds that he's gotten both women wrong, and there's an uneasiness to both of these relationships that's never fully resolved.
I'm still not sure what Tartt was trying to say with all this.  For me it almost mirrors his relationship with the painting. He's obsessed with it, in his private way. It's his, but it can never really be his, and he always knows that it shouldn't be, that art this beautiful can mean a million different things to a million different people and belong equally to all of them. Art and love are similar like can love a painting, but it will never love you back. That doesn't mean you don't get anything out of loving it. And loving another person doesn't mean they'll love you back, but if you're not a creep (very important, the Don't Be a Creep commandment), there can still be a beauty in the act of just loving someone. I don't know. I can't imagine anyone made it this far, which is probably a good thing because I'm getting less and less coherent as I go on, but this book definitely made me think about some Real Shit, and I'm still deciding what I think of it all.
Now if you are still here and I lost you with my babbling about Real Shit because that's not your cup of tea, I still recommend you read it for the excellent crime capers, the face-melting descriptions, and the characters you'll love to hang out with for 800 pages. They're worth your time, believe me.

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