Friday, November 15, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: A review in Two parts

Part Two: The Review
Part One is here.

I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History a few years ago and loved it. It's a favorite.  So I was super excited to hear that she was finally publishing something new.  The Goldfinch.  As soon as we got the advance at the store a coworker snatched it up, but she stopped reading about 200 pages in. Her early thoughts had me thinking that maybe I wouldn't even bother with it.  But then all the reviews and press started coming out; and it was good press.  Glowing.  It was difficult to find a review that was less than worshiping.  So I gave it a shot.

Quick synopsis if you haven't read any of the reviews.  This is the story of Theo Decker.  He's just a kid when his mother is killed in a horrifying accident he miraculously survives.  The novel follows Theo as he grows up, weighed down by grief and anger and guilt and loneliness.  That sounds bleak, I know.  I cried multiple times reading this least three instances of pretty serious sobbing.  But there's also suspense, action, danger. And there's joy, and humor, and friendship; and all of that propels you through the hard stuff.  It's life.  And it's pretty stunning.  Oh, and there's also a painting.

I don't want to say too much, because suspense and mystery do play a pretty important role, so, I will just lay out a few of my favorite things.

This book is huge.  It clocks in at almost 800 pages.  Bit of a monster, really.  So I was grateful that Tartt doesn't keep us nailed down in one spot the entire time.  And the portion of the novel that takes place in Las Vegas's...I don't know what it is, but it had this weird and profound effect on me.  It's not as if I have any love for Las Vegas.  I don't even like Vegas beyond the fact that when I was there a few weeks ago, it was unbelievably sunny, and The Killers are from there (seriously The Killers?!? every fucking post...get out of my life!).  I think the power of the Vegas bit of Goldfinch is a combination of the introduction of my favorite character and a key shift in the narrative; but mostly, a heavy dose of southwest nostalgia.

Ultimately, it's more of that yearning for the desert that a talented writer and a well written story does to me.  And sometimes it's like Tartt is spying on my childhood when she describes the sprawling wasteland of desert, tract housing; or the languid, muffled, and murky laziness of  a heavy curtain drawn against the relentless heat of the desert sun.  How does she do that!??!  Her author bio makes no mention of any residence in the Southwest.  In fact, she seems decidedly east coast (and the portions set in New York make that abundantly clear).  So how on earth does she manage the gritty, dried out, electric charge of a desperate and scrabbling desert upbringing?  How?

Next, let's talk characters.  Before I even got to my favorite character, I was already sold on Theo, which is unusual, as I don't typically like children as narrators. But Theo is wonderful.  Really, all the characters are so perfectly rendered it's remarkable.  They're all real.  Real people that you know right now, that could be sitting in the room with you this very moment.

And it seems the characters can't possibly get any better but then...Boris.  Please understand, I know I tend toward the hyperbolic (*sheepish grin*), but I make not the slightest hesitation when I say that BorisBoris is absolutely my favorite character, of any book.  Ever.  Stephen King wrote an exceptional review of The Goldfinch for the New York Times, and I will steal his words to tell you about Boris:
...Tartt’s take on the Artful Dodger and this novel’s most brilliantly drawn character. Boris may be a little too naïve about America for such a wise child...but his jittery good humor, boundless energy and flash charm are impossible for Theo — and us — to resist.
Boris is...he's just...I...  Many, many times, this novel destroys my ability to form cohesive sentences. Explaining how much I love Boris is the primary reason for that speechlessness.  What I can say, is that he offers an unexpected, outrageous, charming, and sweetly earnest, wise-beyond-his-years, perspective for all the shit going on in this book and in Theo's life.  He's the friend you wish you'd had...well, most of the time.  Truly, he's perfect.

This review is getting overly long.  So, here's one last favorite thing.  In the end, this novel is about a young man dealing with the shocking death of his mother and the trauma, guilt, and unimaginable loneliness that entails.  But Donna Tartt's delicate mastery keeps this from being the tear-stained, depressive tome it could have been, and moves it into the realm of something redemptive, epic, courageous, and sparkling.

All through the book, there is the subtle, ever-present absence of Theo's mother.  But it's never, ever oppressive.  Sometimes you even forget why Theo's life has so decidedly crumbled around him.  I have no experience with this kind of tragedy, but I imagine that eventually it becomes a sort of constant, dull, pulsing, pain that can be ignored for awhile...until it simply can't.  And that's what Tartt is able to convey.  She isn't constantly reminding you that this kid is a sad, lost orphan.  But every once in awhile, the truth of Theo's loss leaps out of nowhere, surprising the reader and Theo himself.  Tartt delivers a sucker punch of grief and loneliness that takes your breath away and reminds you of what's truly at stake.

So I guess those are a few of my favorite things; Las Vegas, Boris, and soul-shuddering emotion.

In his review, Stephen King compares The Goldfinch to a no-hitter in baseball.
a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but in the case of “The Goldfinch,” they never do.
I will say, I disagree here.  As much as I love this book, I am not entirely blind to some of its faults.  It is, after all, 800 pages.  And towards the end, it becomes clear that maybe it doesn't need to be quite so long.  King says that the wheels never fall off.  I think they do, but I also find I don't care.  Because as this wheel-less, Mack Truck of a novel careens toward its outlandish, wild, and treacherous end, there isn't any other author, or any other characters I would rather be hurled off of a cliff with.