Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch was listed as one of the most-abandoned books by Amazon, based on reader tracking data acquired from Kindle software.  This is probably for a few reasons.  First, it's quite long for a fiction title, at nearly 800 pages.  Second, despite a promising beginning, it doesn't move particularly fast.  Things are building up in the background the entire time, but nothing is really happening in the foreground, which probably frustrates a lot of readers more familiar with fast-moving titles like the works of Dan Brown.  You really have to care about the characters in order for this book to pull you on, and not all readers are deeply character-connected.  And with a book this thick, with not that much blatant action occurring...well, it's an easy one to put down, meaning to continue on, and then just kind of forget about.  But not me.  No, this was one of Amazon's most abandoned books, which some might see as a deterrent, but which I (and probably a good number of other people) saw as a challenge.

Here's the basic premise.  Theodore Becker got suspended from school for getting caught with the wrong crowd.  The day he and his mother are supposed to meet with his principal, they head out early, get caught in the rain, and seek shelter in one of New York City's many art museums.  Theo's mother wants to see the titular Goldfinch painting currently on display.  When she pops off to buy an art book as a gift for a coworker, Theo lingers behind trying to get up the nerve to chat with a girl he's noticed--and the world dissolves into chaos as the museum is bombed, the target of a terrorist attack.  When Theo comes to, he's one of only two living people that he can find in the museum--the others having been evacuated due to a concern about another bomb--and the other man, the cute girl's uncle, is on his way out.  Concussed, disoriented, and otherwise mentally and physically unstable due to his recent trauma, Theo finds himself accepting the man's signet ring, with instructions on where to take it--and also accepting the man's orders to take the Goldfinch painting out of the museum.  And so Theo ends up a functional orphan--his father not being in the picture--and an accidental-on-purpose art thief, all in one day.

The story follows Theo from place to place as he struggles with the aftermath of the explosion and its impact on his life, all the while toting (and worrying about) the painting, which he realized (once he wasn't so concussed) he definitely should not have, but isn't sure how to take back without getting in massive amounts of trouble for taking it in the first place.  From the home of an old friend to a subdivision in the desert skirting Las Vegas and then back to New York, Theo's life seems to be continually built up, only to crumble around him once again.  Alcohol and drugs gain a prominent position in his psyche, as does a generalized anxiety order associated with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A cast of colorful characters supports him, from Boris the Russian/Ukranian (it's a bit fuzzy where he's actually from, as he's moved around quite a bit; he definitely lied in Ukraine for a good chunk of time, but I can't remember if it's where he was actually from originally) to Theo's wayward father (who does turn up again) to Hobie, the owner of an antiques shop in New York and a master of restoring old pieces of furniture, and also Pippa, the girl Theo saw at the museum who becomes a recurring and obsessive part of his life.

At points, this was a hard book to read.  Theo's substance abuse and his recurring, crushing depression can be hard to watch and difficult to deal with, especially his thoughts on the fate of everyone--which basically amount to death and decay.  At some points, he has life so good, having pulled himself up and really made something of himself, and to watch him crumble back into drugs is just awful to see.  Some of the people around him genuinely love and support him, even if they don't know what's really going on, like Hobie and Popper, Theo's kidnapped dog, and others love him but don't really seem to care what's actually best for him...though Theo debates about what's best for people in the "follow your heart" regard at the end of the book.  But the writing is beautiful, particularly the sections that take place in the stark, desert development where Theo lives with his dad and his dad's girlfriend for a bit.  Tartt can evoke some wonderful imagery, and keeping this cast of characters so real an poignant over almost 800 pages with only occasional bursts of action to propel things is really masterful work.  I can see why this won a prize.

My only real complaint about this book is the ending.  It just seemed too neat for me.  Theo was in about a dozen things over his head by the end of the book, and yet everything just seemed to get tied up and swept away, with few to no lasting consequences.  He seems on the way to getting everything he ever wanted, which appeared to me to be unlikely at best.  I think I would have actually liked to see a more bittersweet ending on this one, because it would have come across as more realistic than what actually happened.  Still, a beautiful book overall, and I encourage anyone who starts it to stick with it, if you have the time.

4 stars out of 5.

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